The primary purpose of training our pet parrots is to get them to behave more how we would like. Whether that's not going on your furniture (by staying on parrot perches), flying to you on command, or going back in the cage when it is time, training can help. However, training is useless with motivation. The owner needs to be motivated to train as well, but I'm talking about the parrot's motivation to do as the trainer requests.
From a behavioral standpoint, motivation can be measured by the rate of learned responses to stimuli by the parrot. The motivated parrot is more likely to perform the behavior, with quicker promptness, with greater accuracy, for more repetitions, for a great span of time. A motivated parrot will also learn new behavior quicker.
In the early stages of parrot training, motivation may be less crucial. The very basic things you need to teach at first such as step up, targeting, and taming may be successful with the bare minimum unmanaged motivation. However, when you wish to proceed to more challenging behaviors, motivation will play a tremendous role in whether your succeed or not. Besides teaching or performing tricks, motivation is essential for flight training exercise, harness training, socialization toward strangers, solving biting and problems, and for all around good behavior.
Since food motivation is most universal and replenishable, I will mainly focus on managing motivation with food. However, I similar approach can apply to toys, attention, petting, and other things you may find motivate your parrot. There are three key elements to controlling motivation from food:
-Quantity/hunger -Quality/desirability -Effort to gain it
I covered the importance of weight management in my previous article. The main reason to manage your parrot's weight is to keep it healthy rather than for training. However, with your parrot's weight already managed to keep it at the optimal healthy weight, motivation for food can exist. An overweight parrot with constant access to food will not only be unmotivated to eat, but it will also be less motivated to participate in activity because it is physically harder.
Besides establishing a healthy weight for your parrot, it is also important to implement a feeding schedule. Twice a day for most species, three times a day for the smallest ones, works great. Many zoos and professional shows will go so far as feeding a lot of food but only once a day so that the parrots are inevitably super hungry and motivated by show time. I do not recommend their approach because I believe it is more stressful than spanning food out some.
Another reason why weight management is imperative is to compensate the parrot's training treats from meals. If you don't adjust your parrot's food portions, the training treats (which are normally fattier or sweeter) will implant excess calories and cause weight gain. By weighing your parrot before all meals and adjusting food portions to maintain the target healthy weight, you will be able to compensate for treats and maintain a stable weight long term. Some days the parrot may train better than other days (aside from motivation factors) and thereby receive more or less treats. Feeding the same sized meals may be unfair when the treat portions are different. Compensating this with an adjustment in meal portions will ensure the weight stays healthy and that the parrot is free to volunteer to train or not. Since the parrot's training is voluntary, it is up to us to find ways to solicit maximum motivation without food deprivation that can impact health.
By scheduling food meals and training just before (rather than after), you can expect maximum motivation from mealtime hunger. You can further enhance motivation at training time by padding the prior meal with low calorie foods such as broccoli or carrots. That way the parrot still feels filled up but since it received fewer calories, will be more eager to fill on the next meal. This will be balanced out by the weight management approach by analyzing empty weights and adjusting pellet portions accordingly.
Desirability of treats highly impacts motivation. Part of it is how much the parrot enjoys the treat food but part of it is relative to the food it normally eats. If the parrot is fed nothing other than pellets or vegetables in the cage, it leaves all other foods to be more desirable. I never feed fruit, pasta, seeds, nuts, or pretty much anything else my parrots get (other than pellets or vegetables) in the cage. Since they don't need these other foods in abundance anyway, saving them exclusively is treats not only helps motivation but is healthier.
There is also the desirability of certain treats over others. This can be a great aide in training. There are two ways to improve motivation based on the relative value of different treats. You can generally use less favorable treats but then mark major success with the better treats. The other approach is to mix all treats and provide different ones randomly. This approach is good for sustaining motivation because the parrot never knows what it's going to get. It must keep trying because the next treat may just be a whole nut. This also helps ensure the parrot does not get bored of the current treat. If you keep using the same treat, once the parrot no longer wants that specific food, motivation will diminish. Learn about choosing and evaluating treats here.
But now I want to get to some of my more interesting discoveries about managing parrot training motivation. My goal is to maximize motivation for specific tasks and to sustain it for a longer period. The reason both of these are important in training is because if you can get your parrot to do difficult tasks or endure long sessions at home, you'll have much greater success for easy/short tasks when you really need your parrot to deliver. For example if my parrots can fly 50 flight recalls (50ft out and 50ft back) in a training session, the likelihood of them making the one critical recover flight when lost outdoors is greatly improved. So you see this isn't strictly for training them to perform in shows.
Strong motivation is needed for the more complicated or strenuous tasks. Flying requires greater motivation than waving. A lot more. The parrot can probably wave 100 times for the amount of energy it takes to fly 100 feet. Does that mean we have to give a treat that is 100 times better? No. The biggest reason is because the treats we are giving for something small like wave is far excessive of what it could be. If my parrots can fly a dozen 50ft out and return flights for a single sunflower seed, then they can do the wave trick for an infinitesimally small treat or do an insanely large amount of waves for a normal treat.
Now this doesn't mean that the parrot just learning to wave thinks it's any easier than flying. While teaching the trick and shortly after, high motivation is in fact required. But once the trick is learned, in order to increase motivation for other things, you MUST challenge your parrot further. You must always strive to get your parrot to do more for less. This is the secret to achieving outstanding motivation. When my parrots normally have to do 20-50 flights an evening for a dozen treats, performing tricks at a show is comparatively easier and the motivation is extremely high. Likewise when I needed to work on Socialization to teach my parrot to stop biting strangers, I was able to make the situation far more desirable by differential reinforcement. Since the parrots normally have to do so much for so little, I can solicit an insanely strong level of motivation for comparatively easier task. For example step onto a strangers hand for 5 seconds without biting and I'll give you the same treat you normally have to fly your butt off to earn.
Obviously you're not going to jump from teaching a parrot to wave to flying 20 times for a treat. You need to build your way up there. This is why I always say you must challenge, challenge, challenge your parrot. When you challenge your parrot to wave a little higher, wave a little longer, wave for a smaller treat, wave more times for the same treat, you are teaching your parrot to be motivated by less! After some months or years of this constant sort of challenge, the parrot develops a tremendous level of capability and motivation. When you go from 1 treat for 1 wave to 10 waves for a treat to 50 waves for a treat (using variable ratio reinforcement), you have diluted the treat ratio so far that it virtually looks like your parrot does the trick without any reinforcement at all. All you have to do is occasionally reward that trick out of the blue to maintain that variable reinforcement ratio level. But this goes even further where you can maintain tricks with no food reinforcement at all. When the parrot can wave 20-50 times (and I mean in separate instances, not at once) before getting a treat, that parrot can just as well wave for a little attention or a head scratch. The motivation level required for performing the trick has become so low that virtually any minor reinforcement will suffice!
If you are not challenging your parrot to do better, more, for less, you are actually regressing in your training. Think about a parrot with a foraging toy. At first it can't figure it out but once it has, it gets the treat out in no time and the foraging toy becomes useless. It is similar with trick training. After the parrot "gets it" that picking up its foot gets it a treat, it takes less effort to do it. There is also the exercise component as well. After waving daily for a week, that foot is stronger and it is even easier still to wave. So if you are still giving the same quantity/quality of treat for the same behavior, you are in fact making your parrot give you less motivation (not more and not the same as before)! The only way to increase motivation is to increase the challenge, reduce the quality of the treat, reduce the quantity (break off a smaller piece), or increase the number of behaviors it takes to earn it (chaining or variable ratio reinforcement).
The point about exercise is not to be taken lightly either. If you fly your parrot regularly, their flight muscles become stronger and the amount of motivation to take an extra flight becomes less. You can challenge your parrot to fly further, more times, and for fewer or less desirable treats. This ensures that motivation continues to increase in the long run.
Sustaining motivation for duration is another part of the equation. If you can manage a 30 to 60 minute training session at home, 5 minutes of glory in front of your friends or an emergency flight recall are going to be more successful. Sustaining longer durations of motivation is also great for molding good day-long behavior from your parrot. If the parrot can spend an hour doing what you ask, it can also learn to do it any time of day outside of training. Here are three tips for sustaining motivation longer. First do all of the above for maximizing motivation and minimizing treats. By giving smaller treats, using variable ratio reinforcement, and making the tasks easier with time/challenge, your parrot will be able to continue to go longer before it is too tired or full. The second thing is to compensate the treats/difficulty with time. In the beginning of the session, start out with small and less desirable treats. But as the session progresses, you can squeeze motivation for longer by increasing the desirability of treats to keep the parrot going. Lastly, begin the session with tougher training and progress to easier tasks as you wrap up.
Varying levels of motivation required depending on challenge: (from low to high motivation requirements)
-not doing anything (being tame) -overcoming minor fear (taming) -stepping up -performing easy known tricks -performing complex known tricks -learning new tricks (training) -overcoming bigger fears (i.e. socialization/strangers) -flight recall (and other flighted behaviors) -flight recall amidst distractions (outdoor harness/freeflight)
So to make the most of the motivation in a training session (after a warm up if one is needed), begin with more difficult or strenuous tasks first and then work your way back toward easier things by the end. For example, let's say your parrot knows 5 tricks, step up, and flight recall. But at the same time you're teaching a new trick and working on getting the parrot to let you grab it. To maximize training motivation and get the most out of a single training session, work on some flight recalls first, then teach the next portion of the new trick, then practice some old tricks, and end the session by taming. Since the taming process for grabbing merely involves the parrot tolerating your hand's presence or touch (without spending any effort), the parrot will still gladly take treats while you work on desensitization. If you worked on the taming in the beginning of the sessions, your progress would have been marginally better. Yet the parrot would not be hungry enough to be motivated to flight recall to you after getting a bunch of treats for taming.
Finally, here are a few more little tricks you can use to maximize motivation during the training sessions when you really need it (or inadvertently get it). My parrots seem to get really motivated to eat when rain is approaching. That makes sense, they probably naturally want to fill up before they can no longer feed. Even if this is occurring midday or when motivation isn't expected, it's worth trying some training and it gives your parrot the opportunity to earn food when it wishes. Sometimes I have to leave early so I uncover my parrots and leave their meal. Naturally they eat it right away but a byproduct is that they are more hungry come training time. I take advantage of this heightened motivation since it is already there. I don't normally do this intentionally but if there is a training session where I want to stimulate greater than usual motivation this technique can help. It doesn't work long term though because then they just get used to a different feeding schedule. The last strategy that can sometimes help boost motivation is skipping training on occasion. Sometimes the birds just get bored and need a break. By skipping a session, it also means they are missing a chance to get treat foods. After a few days of not getting to have treats, even without major hunger, there may be a stronger motivation to earn it.
Thus the secret to teaching your parrot to be more motivated is to keep training and challenging it! The more difficult stuff you can get it to do, the easier it will be to get it to do the easy stuff. Sustain motivation longer by diminishing the difficulty of tasks throughout a training session while increasing the reward value. Exercise your parrot's muscles and brain through extensive flight training. As your parrot becomes stronger, flying will be easier and likewise it will be more motivated to fly. So there's nothing silly about teaching your parrot dozens of tricks, it just makes the parrot even easier to teach something new. Have fun.
Check out this video that demonstrates varying degrees of motivation from some previously unused clips.
Great article Michael (though you need to work on your chart-visualising skills )!
The main reason to manage your parrot's weight is to keep it healthy rather than for training. However, with your parrot's weight already managed to keep it at the optimal healthy weight, motivation for food can exist. An overweight parrot with constant access to food will not only be unmotivated to eat, but it will also be less motivated to participate in activity because it is physically harder.[/quote:15uz3iru]
While I believe this is true, and that you can achieve more motivation by food managed, both parrots were still eager to train when free fed. I am hoping that managing the food intake a little bit more (but still offering the same ammount as with todays food management) that we can up their motivation a little bit more .
There is also the desirability of certain treats over others. This can be a great aide in training. There are two ways to improve motivation based on the relative value of different treats. You can generally use less favorable treats but then mark major success with the better treats. The other approach is to mix all treats and provide different ones randomly. This approach is good for sustaining motivation because the parrot never knows what it's going to get. It must keep trying because the next treat may just be a whole nut.[/quote:15uz3iru]
Which method do you use? I find that our fellas like 2 things as training treats, everything else isnt something they like enough. Sunflowers as regular treats, and almonds as supertreats. Other seeds are used to train them to like the carriers etc through being available only there.
So to make the most of the motivation in a training session (after a warm up if one is needed), begin with more difficult or strenuous tasks first and then work your way back toward easier things by the end. For example, let's say your parrot knows 5 tricks, step up, and flight recall. But at the same time you're teaching a new trick and working on getting the parrot to let you grab it. To maximize training motivation and get the most out of a single training session, work on some flight recalls first, then teach the next portion of the new trick, then practice some old tricks, and end the session by taming[/quote:15uz3iru]
This is great advice, and something Ive found to be most effective as well.
Thanks for the article !
[quote="cml":38saa86h]There is also the desirability of certain treats over others. This can be a great aide in training. There are two ways to improve motivation based on the relative value of different treats. You can generally use less favorable treats but then mark major success with the better treats. The other approach is to mix all treats and provide different ones randomly. This approach is good for sustaining motivation because the parrot never knows what it's going to get. It must keep trying because the next treat may just be a whole nut.[/quote:38saa86h]
Which method do you use? I find that our fellas like 2 things as training treats, everything else isnt something they like enough. Sunflowers as regular treats, and almonds as supertreats. Other seeds are used to train them to like the carriers etc through being available only there.[/quote:38saa86h]
Great question. I actually use both depending on what I'm trying to stimulate. For maintaining behavior I use the random treat method but when teaching something new I vary the reward with effort. The parrots are so smart they catch on. But as for the ineffectiveness of your treats (the fact that you can only use 2) tells me that you're feeding your parrot too much. Part of soliciting more motivation is having a greater pallet of treat foods at your disposal. As you stop overfeeding your parrots, you'll discover that foods like fruit, pellets, and practically anything they are capable of eating can become treats. In order to avoid overfeeding treats to my parrots (since I do a lot of training), I often just give pellets as treats. They don't complain cause those are pretty big treats compared to treat foods I use. But doing this makes the treat foods even more effective and thereby gets me even more motivation.