Understanding Approximations - Pet Parrot Pointers


At this time of year I receive a lot of calls and emails asking for advice on training and developing basic handling skills with newly purchased pet parrots. As this is such a formative time in the development of our young companions, I thought that I would take the next two issues of Pet Parrot Pointers to address two important concepts that are used for laying the foundation for establishing effective learning experiences. Hopefully, developing your understanding of these will really help to support your newly acquired pet to achieve successful adaptation to his or her new environment. First off, critical to the delivery of quality learning experiences is an understanding of how effective animal trainers and teachers use ‘approximations’ to achieve a training goal.

Small Steps—Big Rewards

Approximations can be simply defined as ‘the observable and measurable steps that your parrot needs to progressively take to achieve a behavioural goal’. I like to think of any learning as occurring along a continuum, with each step along the continuum an approximation leading towards the final goal. Training using small approximations is the most effective method of establishing solid and consistent performance of behaviours. It is also highly effective when trained behaviours diminish, as we need only to go back to the nearest approximation to the behaviour goal that is still being demonstrated successfully and work from there.

Perhaps the first mistake that new companion parrot owners make is failing to reinforce small approximations and, instead, withhold reinforcement for too long in the hope that their parrot will achieve a behavioural goal from A to Z in one go. Essentially what happens for many pet parrot owners is that they inadvertently make the criteria for success too difficult for the young parrot to achieve. Taking an approach to your training that carefully reinforces small approximations towards your goal behaviour will hopefully help you to avoid the pitfalls of a reinforcement schedule that may be unrealistic or ineffective with your pet parrot.

Parrots that display a strong aversion to dark crates or ‘pet packs’ are often more comfortable being trained to enter and exit an open ‘carry cage’ such as this. The approximation plan sees this Galah being reinforced for his proximity to the cage, then for showing interest in the entrance and for exploring the cage. You can use larger rewards to increase the time spent in the cage before finally reinforcing exiting the cage. It is important during the early stages of training that you do not close the door until the parrot is comfortable entering and exiting the carry cage. Once this is achieved you can work on a new set of approximations for increasing the time spent in a closed carry cage or pet pack

Skills Required

Two essential skills are required to effectively train using approximations. The first key to success is careful consideration of the size of the approximation that needs to be reinforced. In the simplest example when working with parrots, you can think of the behaviour of raising a foot from the perch for either a wave or as the first part of a chain of behaviours required to step onto your hand. Training the behaviour of raising the foot to wave to you requires reinforcement of each small increment of the foot being raised. To teach our parrot to raise its foot initially we use an understanding of approximations to establish a pattern of reinforcing each small increment of the foot being raised from the perch. Each of these increments of the foot being raised represents a potential ‘criterion’ for reinforcement. You are probably thinking, ‘But won’t my parrot stop at raising his foot just off the perch if I keep reinforcing this?’ Well, you’re right—and this brings us to the next critical understanding when using approximations.

Raising the Criteria for Reinforcement

Once an approximation has been achieved and reinforced, we need to raise the criteria to the next approximation in our training plan to ensure that we achieve some momentum in the strength, frequency or duration of the behaviour that we wish to achieve. If we are training a simple foot raise for a wave, once your first approximation is achieved and reinforced, you can then raise your criteria so that reinforcement is then only given when the foot is raised a little higher. In essence, each time an approximation is achieved and reinforced, you can raise your expectations and start reinforcing the next achievable stage in your approximation schedule. Highly effective animal trainers and pet parrot owners can rapidly achieve momentum in simple behaviours through the delivery of reinforcers that are offered immediately after each subtle progression in their parrot’s behaviour.

Training the ‘step-up’ behaviour chain is achieved by reinforcing small approximations such as a single leg lift, one foot on the hand, both feet on the hand and stepping off. Note that the parrot has choice—the ‘step up’ cue is a request, not a command. Using this strategy you achieve good associations for the parrot between the choices that he makes and the receiving of positive reinforcement for making a desirable choice

Chaining Behaviours

The use of approximation schedules is usually extended to developing a plan for ‘chaining’ behaviours. The simple act of a parrot stepping onto your hand is actually composed of a sequence of behaviours referred to as a behaviour ‘chain’. Your approximation schedule for training a parrot to step onto and off your hand would consider the criteria stages that your parrot can easily achieve as he progresses along the learning continuum.

With tame parrots that are already receptive to receiving positive reinforcement, these stages may build from a single foot being placed onto the hand, to both feet, to extending the duration of time spent on the hand and obviously how this is reversed with the sequence of stepping off the hand. In most cases, I will actually sit down with pencil and paper and write down the achievable stages in all of the behaviours that I need to reinforce to achieve my behavioural goal. These become my approximations and, as each is reached and reinforced, I simply raise my criteria for reinforcement to the next approximation that I have written down. Sometimes the momentum of behaviour presented by the parrot means throwing the paper plan out, as they may have been able to progress faster than I anticipated! When training a chain of more complex behaviours we often actually develop what is referred to as a ‘backwards chaining’ plan. This is a training process that is best explained using a specific context and we will look at this in a future PPP column!

Practical Applications

Developing an approximation schedule and carefully mapping out a positive reinforcement–based training plan for your pet parrot can be applied in numerous practical contexts. Extending beyond simple handling behaviours such as stepping up and off, we can develop approximation schedules to achieve essential husbandry-based behaviours, such as entering and exiting a pet pack for transport to the veterinary surgery, establishing a stationing area using targets and recall training of flighted parrots. We will discuss some of these applications over the coming PPP issues.

Common Mistakes with Stepping Up

Although we have looked at how a positively reinforced approximation schedule is used in teaching a parrot to step up and down, I would really like readers to reflect on how they need to maintain these simple behaviours throughout the life of the pet parrot. In my experience with pet parrot owners, there are two common mistakes that can lead to problems with pet parrots not stepping up onto a hand later in life—firstly, failing to continue positively reinforcing the behaviour once it is established and, secondly, actually using negative reinforcement to achieve the step-up behaviour.

Maintaining learned behaviours such as ‘stepping up’ requires positive reinforcement throughout the life of the bird. As is often the case with learned behaviour, when the reinforcement schedule becomes too variable or ceases, the behaviour, or the level of responsiveness to an established behavioural cue, often diminishes over time. Positively reinforcing ‘stepping off’ is also just as important, and pet parrot owners often neglect this. I like to reinforce my parrots positively every time that they fly to my hand and every time that they step off onto a perch. This way there is a consistent association between behaviours that I have established with them and consequential reinforcers that they value.

 Negative reinforcement is the next common mistake. I borrow a little gem from Barbara Heidenreich when getting parrot owners to reflect on the approach that they are taking and ask them to consider whether their parrot steps onto their hand because it ‘wants’ to or because it ‘has’ to. If your parrot ‘wants’ to behave in response to a cue that you have established then it is probably an example of a positive reinforcement–based learning environment.

An example of negative reinforcement commonly seen in achieving a step-up response is placing a finger on the abdomen or chest of the bird. In this circumstance, the parrot is effectively forced to step onto the hand to withdraw the aversive stimulus of the finger pressed against them. Regardless of whether the behaviour is then rewarded with a treat, negative reinforcement was still used to elicit the behaviour. Later in life, we often see parrots that were once willing to respond to aversive-based approaches to stepping onto their owner's hand develop aggression or avoidance-based responses to the presentation of hands. The next time that your parrot steps onto your hand consider if he or she did so because it wanted to - not because it had to.


Have you trained your pet parrot to perform a novel or practical behaviour? Why not take a few photographs of your parrot in action and we will display them here and share your achievements for other PPP readers! Sharing your training success may just help to encourage and motivate other parrot keepers to try the same. In our next issue, we will take a look at another important training concept and find out how we can enhance the motivation of our parrots to achieve success in their approximation schedules through effective diet management for training.

Send us an email via ppp@birdkeeper.com.au and your questions, comments and photographs may be shared with our readers through future editions of Pet Parrot Pointers.

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