Teaching a Parrot to Step-Up: Recommended Steps

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As a first-time bird owner, I found many online parrot training guides to be… rather vague. It was hard to figure out how to create a tangible training process for my parrots out of abstract ideas.

Fortunately, I had a ton of guidance from the bird rescue where I used to volunteer, and now several years of the hands-on experience of rescuing five different parrots from varying walks of life.

Thus, I’ve created a list of suggested milestones for training parrots who are hand-shy to step up. Links on this page refer to stories from training Vi so you have some point of reference from a real-life story. 

This timeline assumes you spend several hours of ambient quality time with your bird every day (time spent around your parrot where you go about your business and speak frequently to your bird–generally large amounts of time in the same room, not necessarily one-on-one) and that you work with your parrot a minimum of twice a day for 10/15 minutes at a time.

Note that training sessions are best done in short bursts (no more than fifteen to twenty minutes) several times a day rather than all at once in one big chunk; this prevents you and your parrot from getting tired, irritable, or impatient! 

Step-Up Training Milestones: Usually in order, but not always!

Milestone #1: Getting comfortable around you and your family.

Expected Timeline: One Day to Two Weeks

The first lesson your parrot needs to learn is that you are its flock; you will provide for it, keep it company, keep its living area clean, and that you will talk with it and interact. You’re a friend–especially with abused birds, this one is enormously important.

Hanging out, singing to your parrot, whistling, reading the newspaper aloud to him or her, or generally just being around and friendly will help build this initial bond. Feeding favored treats here and there helps as well! 

Milestone #2: Finding treats he or she really likes.

Expected Timeline: One Day to Several Weeks (especially if the bird hasn’t been exposed to lots of different foods–teaching them to try new things can be a challenge.)

Take the time to try different foods with your parrot to discover what he or she likes. Keep a running list of likes, loves, mediocres, and hates. This will help with basic training later, and help build a solid foundation as your parrot learns that you are the source of tasty nom-noms.

 

Milestone #3: Choosing to come out of her cage on her own.

Expected Timeline: One day to several weeks.

Make sure all dogs, cats, and other creatures that can cause harm are out of the room, and leave the cage door open for at least one hour (more if you can swing it).

If your bird is brave (like Vi was), he may come out on day two – if not, this can take a few weeks. Eventually your bird will grow curious (especially if there is a treat or two [and no more] on top of their cage or a fascinating toy to explore.)

Caveat on Milestone #3 – You parrot also needs to learn to go back INTO their cage, so make sure you have a plan for how to help them return to the cage BEFORE you let them come out. Your options for this are to 1. wait until they choose to do so on their own (so make sure you actually have all day–really) – it helps to keep food/water only in their cage for this, or 2. finding a specific treat they absolutely LOVE and tend to do pretty much anything for.

I also recommend teaching your parrot a command word to help them learn this (Vi’s is “Cage Up!”) – if you say this any time they choose to go back in their cage and reward them with a treat when they do, they’ll catch on relatively quickly. Make sure to reward them with a treat any time you say the command and they go in, even if they’re already on their way!

Milestone # 3 Rule: Do NOT chase your bird back into their cage. Fear is the opposite of what you want.

Milestone #4: Teaching your bird you will respect his or her body language.

Expected Timeline: One to two months. More if you experience setbacks, like a bite or fear response.

Rule # 1 – If the new parrot backs away from your hand, let her! Show her you’ll pay attention to her body language. If she wants you to leave her alone, learn to read those signs and do so. Think partnership over dictatorship and save the forced ‘step-ups’ for when it’s actually necessary.

Rule # 2 – If your parrot postures to bite you as you try to teach it to step up, freeze. Wait until he backs away, then remove your hand. 

I find that most parrots bite because they want you to stop doing something. Your job is to learn your parrots other subtle indicators that mean “Stop” and respect them. 

A Note: Your parrot needs to learn that biting will not get them what they want. They need to learn that something else will make the change they need. Pay attention to what that “something else” might be (Vi, for example, will shuffle away if she doesn’t want to be picked up, and we honor that most of the time).

If your parrot goes AFTER you to bite you aggressively (rather than when you reach out to try and get them to step up), that’s a whole different can of worms that needs different responses.

Rule # 3 – If your parrot *does* manage to bite you, do. not. react. Wait until they are done–yes, even if you’re bleeding and they’re grinding down hard. Stay stone-faced, make no sound. Don’t flinch, don’t pull your hand away. Just. Wait. Then slowly pull your hand away once the parrot releases its grip. 

Parrots who learn that they can do something other than biting to get what they need (you to stop trying to get them to step up, in this case) generally stop biting eventually. Respect must come before stepping up.

Milestone #5: Find the holy grail of treats; the one thing your parrot will risk pretty much everything for. (Vi’s is pizza crust; Louie’s is peanuts.)

Expected Timeline: Day one to someday.

This is training GOLD. Find it, use it to the best of your advantage. You can move on to step six if you’ve just reached milestones 1-4, but this one will significantly speed up the training process.

Milestone #6: Choosing to get close to you to take a treat.

Expected Timeline: A day to one or two weeks after achieving Milestone #5. If you’ve only hit Milestone #4, it can take a few weeks to a few months depending on how food-driven (or not) your parrot is.

This is best done when the bird is outside of the cage already rather than inside it (to prevent cage-aggression – some birds are territorial of their space. Having them outside the cage can help avoid a painful bite.)

Practice two or three times a day for ten to fifteen minutes at a time, no more. Hold the treat just above your wrist; every time they take a new treat, move the next one infinitesimally slowly, a quarter of an inch at a time, until they get to the point where they are comfortable reaching over your wrist to take a treat.

Milestone #7: Toe/Wrist Contact for a Bribe

Expected Timeline: A day to a week after Milestone #6.

This milestone is not necessarily stepping up (do NOT force it at this point).

Hold your hand out with a treat on the other side so your bird has to slightly step on you in order to reach the treat. If they make any kind of contact, no matter how brief it is, praise and reward with a treat. Repeat. Eventually, they will get comfortable touching you more and more until…

Milestone #8: Full Foot/Wrist Contact

Follow the directions in Milestone #7 until they put their entire foot on your wrist to take their favored treat.

If your bird chooses to tentatively put one claw on you in order to reach a favorite treat, that is HUGE progress. DO NOT PUSH IT FURTHER YET. They need to consistently feel comfortable stepping briefly onto your hand (give it at least two days) before you try to push it further.

Expected Timeline: A day to several days after Milestone # 7.

Milestone # 9: Full Step-Up for a Treat

Expected Timeline: A day to a week after Milestone #8.

The bird will step all the way up to reach their preferred treat. They will likely immediately step right back down. That’s okay! Reward and praise. Do not try to keep them on your hand, especially not the first day or so they will step up. Let the bird choose how long they want to stand on you.

Once they feel comfortable on you, you can move your wrist slightly away from the cage. If the parrot indicates

Mommy and Vi, snuggling.

Milestone # 10: Stepping up because they want to. 

Expected Timeline: Several weeks to several months after Milestone #9.

If a bird steps up and just hangs out on your wrist, this. is. huge.

Note that I’ve now had Vi going on two years; sometimes, she regresses and won’t step up at all, sometimes she needs a bribe, and sometimes she’s happy to do whatever. Recently, she’s been really consistent in trusting me enough to always step up, even out of her cage. I pay attention to her body language and what she wants (so she’ll step up if I notice she wants up higher somewhere or down off something) and make sure I honor what she wants as much as possible. If I have to put her down somewhere she isn’t a fan, I make sure she always has treats. Every experience a positive one takes time and patience, but it pays off!

Training Set-Backs:

1. Getting Bitten

If a bird bites you, that is 100% your fault. Sorry, but it’s true; it’s your job to appropriately react to, anticipate, and respect a parrot’s body language. A parrot is a companion; they should only be expected to be subservient to you when absolutely necessary (like, say, if there’s a fire).

2. Scaring your bird.

Every experience needs to be a positive one.

3. Even one instance of not respecting their body language.

4. Yelling at your bird.

 

Excelsior: Things That Help Milestones Along

Getting Groomed: Rescue that birdy! If you take your bird to get their wings trimmed or anything else, make sure you’re not around when this happens; usually, a vet or groomer will towel your bird. As soon as they finish, be ready to ‘rescue’ your bird and give him or her all kinds of love. This helps a TON!

Rescuing your Bird: your bird is scared by somethingIf and sees you as a source of safety and comfort, being able to carefully and lovingly rescue your parrot comes hugely in handy!

Boarding: Your bird will be suuuuuper happy to see you again. This can cause setbacks in Milestones 7-10 for some birds, but for others, they will be so thrilled you’re back that they will happily step up for you.

There you have it! Step-up training in bite-sized chunks. 🙂

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