Our show season is now underway and this has had two effects on this blog. The first is that getting the birds and equipment ready for the new season consumes a large amount of time and finding the focus time to write blog entries is difficult. Secondly, getting the birds ready for the season reminds me of some of the things that kind of get taken for granted once the season is underway. It is this second item that is the inspiration for this blog entry.
Crate training is a subject that has come up a couple of times over the last few months from a couple of blog readers. I promised that I would write about it and working our pied crow (Corvus albus) Kumbi reminded me of that promise. Kumbi has been in our show from the beginning of Avian Ambassadors, and he was the subject of a paper I wrote and presented at the IAATE conference in 2006. A part of that paper addressed an issue we had getting Kumbi to willingly enter his travel crate after his show segment. This issue caused me not only to focus more of his training time on entering his travel crate but to incorporate entering the crate into his show behavior. Since that time Kumbi finishes his show segment by flying to his crate, opening the door, and entering it.
While everyone probably doesn’t need that level of performance from their bird it is highly desirable that birds are familiarized with their travel crates and are trained to enter and remain calmly in them. There are many different ways to train entry; my preferred method is to start with a much larger crate than the one I plan on using for the bird; I like the plastic dog crates that come in two parts and I begin by using only the lower half of the crate and no door attached. Place it on a large flat surface; if you use a table make sure to cover the surface with some carpet or a large towel so that the bird can stand without slipping and also make sure the floor of the crate is covered too. We want to do our best to avoid things that may make our bird nervous during this training.
If you are using food rewards for training your bird be sure to begin this new training step before mealtime and also set aside your bird’s favorite treat item for the training sessions.
If you have your bird target trained you can begin by targeting the bird closer and closer to the crate. As it becomes more comfortable gradually target the bird into the crate. The goal here is to have the bird willingly target into the crate.
For birds that are not target trained begin by luring the bird closer and closer to the crate until he is standing in the crate calmly.
My preferred approach is not to use target training but to have already trained the bird with a “go there” cue. The cue for this behavior can be a simple finger point to the place you want the bird to go. Begin on a table top or if your bird is flighted use a “T” perch and train him to hop and then fly from your hand to the perch.
Regardless of whether you target or cue your bird into the crate it is important that your bird becomes comfortable entering this “open-topped”, door-less crate. Do not add the top of the crate until your bird is comfortable with this first step.
The biggest mistake that most people make in any training is taking too big of a step before the bird is ready. Equally important is that the training should move ahead at the pace of the bird. Keen observation of your bird, its body language, and response to your cues should be your indicators of when to raise your expectations.
Once your bird is comfortable with this first stage add the top half of the crate; you will almost certainly need to begin almost at the beginning, slowly getting your bird closer and closer to the crate and then finally entering it although the process should go quicker than the initial training with the half crate.
Do not add the door until the bird is entering the crate and remaining calm in there. In fact before adding the door begin to extend the period that the bird has to stand in the crate before they get their reward. When they are remaining in the crate calmly for say a minute or so add the door; initially do not close the door when the bird enters. Continue to reward calm behavior and gradually close the door. If the bird shows any sign of rushing to get out of the door do NOT close the door; open it and allow the bird to exit and then repeat the entry behavior. It is important at this stage to build the bird’s confidence and to communicate that the bird is in control by allowing it to exit when it chooses. Once you are able to close the door reward your bird for remaining calm in the crate; do this through the window slots on the side of the crate.
Now that you are able to close the door and have your bird remain calm in the crate you may think that you are done. However, this is just the beginning; the training must proceed by generalizing the calm behavior when the crate is moved. Begin with simply lifting the crate gently off the table, reward your bird for calm behavior. It is vital at this stage to take small steps to continue to build the birds confidence with being in the crate. The biggest mistake people make is to start carrying the bird around too soon, before they are ready. A mistake at this stage can set your training back a very long way.
As I stated earlier the temptation to rush ahead and perhaps close the door on a bird that is trying to leave can have consequences that set your training back a long way. The tricks are patience and as always good observation of your bird’s behavior.