A Lesson in Training Mechanics

Being an animal trainer that comes from the zoological field, I pride myself in applying the principles of behavior change to whatever breathing thing that crosses my path. This blog post is a study of training mechanics. No matter the species you work with the principles still apply and I think even the most experienced dog trainer or zoo savant, can learn more by observing their own training mechanics. In the following videos I break down each movement I make and the results it has upon my learner (a young budgie by the name of Caelus). The ungodly amount of hours it took to analyze a 2 minute and 45 second clip I will forever scorn. But after reviewing, digesting, and applying what I viewed from this poorly planned, and impromptu training session, I tried again, and I was happily pleased with my results. In the following session I just completed this morning Caelus learned the concept in half the time and tripled his flight distances. Coincidence? The following is my analysis of yesterday’s impromptu session.

Earlier today I had a short 3 minute training session with my parakeet, Caelus. I had 2 goals in mind

1) Teach him to fly to me from a long distance. and

2) Teach him to fly back from where he came from, at the same long distance.

You can watch the whole training session in the video above.

This training session was not perfect but highlights both what I did wonderfully well, as well as where I have room for improvement. This was a spontaneous training session and I did not meticulously write out each and every step in my training plan. I think I do a lot better when I take the time to write out each individual step in a training plan, as it provides a roadmap to help me get to where I am going a little bit faster.  As a general rule, every trainer should do this for the behaviors they’re trying to teach.

If you haven’t already, go ahead and play the video and see how long it keeps your attention. Chances are, if you’re a typical human being, you don’t find it very interesting. Let me help change that.

Getting Caelus into position

The first step is just to have an engaged learner that is ready to train. I am using Caelus’s is breakfast to teach him this morning. The following steps is what goes down.  

To gage his interest I feed him from an open palm as he is walked to the training area (top of the cage). Caelus wasn’t hand-fed so he can sometimes become easily spooked when I begin walking. I don’t want my learner to fly away!

  1. I remove my open palm from the bird.
  2. I move my open palm onto the cage to encourage Caelus to follow.
  3. Caelus jumps to the cage.
  4. I pick seed out of my open palm and transfer from open palm to closed finger tips.
  5. I fully remove my open palm while keeping Caelus engaged by eating food out of my fingertips.
  6. I fully remove the food and prepare for first rep.

Proper positioning is a must!

I cannot stress enough how important it is to properly position yourself to set your animal up for success during your training session. How you hold your hands, when you move your hands, and where you place your hands, all hold an important role in the interactions you have with your animal.  

In this particular scenario I chose to pick a distance from Caelus’s with my right hand for him to fly to. Notice how still my right hand is. Birds do not like to fly to hands that are unsteady. My left hand is holding all of his food. Your food hand is a very important hand. Always remember to try and leave it out of sight when you are not luring your animal. If you are training an animal that does not require luring and you forget to put your food hand away, your animal may make a mistake and choose to follow your food hand instead of paying attention to the session. Here is a breakdown of the above video.

  1. Decide on a distance for recall.
  2. Say name the same time visual cue is presented. (Right off the bat I forget to hide my food hand before presenting the cue!)
  3. Place food hand in position (behind my back) to prevent confusion and ensure a “clean” session.
  4. Caelus flies to my hand.
  5. Bring reinforcing hand out to deliver seed.

Cuing the "Go Back!"

  1. Choose a distance to “Go Back!” to the cage. This distance is often shorter than the “fly to you” distance.
  2. Say name with visual cue to fly back to cage
  3. reinforce with food hand
  4. remove food hand
  5. place food hand back into position behind back

A clean repetition!

I’m not seeing anything wrong with this repetition. I properly paired his name at the same time I moved my visual cue (my right hand). My food hand was in proper position before I moved my right hand, and I presented my food hand at the proper time when Caelus landed on my finger.

Well that was a bad rep!

I totally messed up on this repetition and it shows! Caelus clearly didn’t fly back to the cage. Here are the steps that happened and where I messed up.

  1. I chose a distance for “go back” because of separate distance criteria.
  2. Caelus give me a cue that he was about to fly towards food hand.
  3. I wasn’t paying attention
  4. I begin to offer a prompt too soon when I should have paid attention to my animal’s body language.
  5. Bird flies to hand.
  6. I laugh my ass off.

This rep could have been successful if I was paying attention. What I SHOULD have done was wait it out OR move Caelus closer to the cage to make this rep successful.

The animal will correct itself!

As I’m laughing notice how I did not provide reinforcement to Caelus. Because I do not provide reinforcement he offers another behavior that has worked for him in the past, which is flying to the top of the cage. Animals will correct themselves if they know what to do! If your animal does not correct themselves chances are you need to do a few more successful repetitions, or lower your criteria so that they get the picture.

  1. This repetition wasn’t perfect either. I should have moved my food hand back into position before quing Caelus to fly to me.
  2. choose appropriate distance
  3. offer verbal and visual cue at the same time
  4. caelus flies over on first cue
  5. bridge as soon as feet hit hand
  6. move food hand to reinforce correct behavior.

Everything after step 1 was great!

Fool me once...

After feeding Caelus I make yet another mistake! I begin by forgetting to place my food hand behind my back after he is reinforced.

  1. Move food hand to top of cage. (I should have placed it behind my back after the previous successful repetition so as to “restart” for the next repetition.)
  2. I pair the verbal “Caelus” with my food hand.
  3. I then pair “go back” with movement towards the cage. (Not good! This is a whole other cue! In this moment I am teaching that MOVEMENT TOWARDS the cage = fly! I want it on a verbal cue only, not a movement cue.)
  4. Caelus flies to the cage.
  5. I reinforce with my food hand.
  6. I remove my food hand and place it back in the PROPER spot, behind my back.
  7. I choose a distance for Caelus to fly to me.
  8. I place my hand at that distance while pairing with the verbal cue “Caelus”. (good rep!)
  9. I reinforce and begin the “go back” process repeating the same mistake in step 1!

The winds of criteria change.

I am confident enough to begin changing the verbal cue to fly to my hand from “Caelus” to “Come”. My plan is to have his name, “Caelus” act as only a way to get his attention. The new cue “Come” will eventually be able to be used as a way to come find me when he cannot see me. Here are the steps I took.

  1. I chose a distance I wanted Caelus to fly to.
  2. I placed my food hand in position
  3. I said “Caelus” before moving my cue hand as a way to ask for his attention.
  4. I paired “Come” with movement of my cue hand.
  5. I reinforced with a jackpot. (Why? I do not know.)
  6. I made ANOTHER mistake by not placing my hand behind my back to reset the behavior.
  7. I did not allow him to process the request before prompting.
  8. He flew to my hand.
  9. Then he flew to the cage.
  10. Then I reinforced him.  This is a mistake many new trainers make, they begin reinforcing a sequence of behaviors. Because this has already happened twice before the behavior has a high probability of becoming a pattern. Fly to hand > fly to cage > reinforce

Fading the prompt.

  1. Good rep of recall.
  2. I finally fixed my “go back” sequence! I chose a distance before prompting!
  3. I waited until his body language showed disinterest.
  4. I gave a short and quick prompt to cage to prevent him flying to my hand again.
  5. Then I waited without response from Caelus.
  6. I decided to increase duration of my prompt as a way to lower my criteria.
  7. Caelus jumps onto cage.
  8. I bridged and reinforced

Adding distance.

  1. Good rep for recall!
  2. Chose distance (I made a big jump in distance, wanted to see what he would do)
  3. Found out he could not do it without me prompting him, but he did the distance!


Reminding with a prompt.

  1. Rep was OK. Bridge should have been quicker.
  2. I choose the same distance for go back as previous rep.
  3. I ask for a “go back” and make it a point to wait longer before offering the prompt.
  4. I prompt and he follows.

Decreasing distance criteria.

  1. I increased recall distance. (good rep)
  2. I chose a further back, “go back” distance.
  3. I paired verbal cue with visual prompt. (kept it short in attempt to fade out prompt and change into a visual cue)
  4. I waited and bird disengaged so I decrease my criteria. (I should have tried 1-2 more times at the longer distance just to see if it could happen.)
  5. I decreased criteria to distance in previous rep (see video above).
  6. Bird had good rep.
  7. I bridged and reinforced.

What I've learned.

  1. I increased recall distance. (good rep)
  2. I increased go back distance.
  3. I said “go back” before prompting.
  4. I waited to see if bird knew what the verbal cue meant.
  5. I gave the visual cue to go back (notice the hand already beginning to fade out. It is no longer right next to the cage but about 6″ away and pointing towards the cage.)
  6. Good rep, jackpot and session end. (When you make a giant leap in criteria after struggle for a while, end the session! Always end on a good note!)

This was a great little experiment that I allowed myself to spend a couple hours on nit-picking and breaking down each step in my training session. I of course was in a much different mindset than I am when working with my clients. This was a non-serious behavior that I wanted one of my personal animals to learn. It gave me nonjudgmental breathing room to critique and analyze myself and made me much more aware of my body positioning and how it affects my animal training.

I hope that, if you are new to training you learned a lot. And I hope that if you are not new to training that you give this exercise a try. Whether or not you choose to share it with the world is up to you.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Joey Bloom

    This was great. What a smart bird!

  2. Caitlin Bird

    All birds are smart! But we can bring it out faster by checking our training skills. 🙂

  3. Sharyn Schmidt

    I adore budgies! I miss you! This was not too in depth for me ?

    1. Caitlin

      I’m glad it was clear! It’s definitely easier to understand compared to the last post. We should catch up sometime!

  4. Sharyn Schmidt

    Easier said than done but yes we should!

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