Learning tricks

You can teach your cockatoo all kinds of tricks. This is fun for you, as your cockatoo will surely entertain you and your family and friends with its funny behaviors. But it is definitely also fun for your cockatoo! He will enjoy the interaction with you and the attention it will get from you.

What you need most of all to teach your cockatoo tricks is patience. Positively reward correct behavior, ignore mistakes and repeat, repeat, repeat. The attention span of a cockatoo is not that long, generally only train for tricks in bouts of 10 minutes.

This page describes how to teach your cockatoo little tricks. More complicated tricks can better me taught using the clicker method.

What’s a trick?

You can teach your cockatoo to perform almost any behavior on command. The most common are shaking hands with you, giving a kiss or making a sound. These are simple tricks because they do not require a in-between phase. Still simple, but a bit harder, are tricks like retrieving an object or throwing an object. These tricks have two phases; one is picking up the object, the other is doing bringing or throwing.
You need to attach a command to a behavior to teach your cockatoo a trick. A behavior that is performed randomly, when your bird feels like it, is not a trick. What can be the command or trigger for the behavior can be anything; a sound, a word, a hand sign or body language sign. What sign you choose is up to you, make sure you choose sufficiently different commands for different tricks.

Rewarding for tricks

You cannot teach your cockatoo a trick by punishing him for getting it wrong. Soon he will refuse to participate in any kind of trick learning with you. You should reward all correct behavior and ignore all mistakes. You can reward your cockatoo with a small piece of his favorite food or by praise. Generally food works best.

The learning process

Make sure you have your cockatoos full attention when you are teaching him, so avoid distractions and take a break when you see his attention diminish. Generally the attention span for learning a trick is 10 to 15 minutes. Take a break and start another training bout later in the day.

The general method of teaching your cockatoo to do a trick is as follows;
command > desired behavior > bridge > reward.
The bridge is a sound or word you say immediately after your cockatoo preforms the desired behavior. The bridge is always followed by the reward. Common bridges are “Well done!”, “Good boy!” or “Excellent!”

First you need to teach your bird the relationship between behavior > bridge > reward. Let’s say your trick is for your cockatoo  to pick up a soft ball when you say ‘get the ball’. Place your cockatoo on a table or flat surface and place the ball next to him. Sooner or later he will touch the ball. When he does this, you say “Well done” (if that’s your bridge) and give him the reward. Repeat this process for around 10 minutes. Ignore him if your cockatoo becomes focused on your stash of rewards instead of on the ball. You can try to focus his attention on the ball if you like. As soon as he touches the ball more often, you can start using the command. Just before he touches the ball, you will give the command. After some progress and some time, you only have to only use the bridge and reward when your cockatoo touches the ball after your use your command. Do not reward for randomly touching the ball. When your cockatoo touches the ball on command, you have already learned him a small trick! If you want to teach him to pick up the ball, you have to reward him when he picks up the ball by himself. This can happen any time when learning the “touch the ball” trick. Reward him for picking up the ball, even if he drops it quickly. As soon as he picks up the ball, you can stop rewarding merely touching the ball. Only use the bridge and reward if your cockatoo picks up the ball.

When learning tricks you have to make use of behavior that your cockatoo already knows. Let’s say you want your cockatoo to shake hands with you. You have already learned your cockatoo to step onto your hand or arm when you present it to him. You can use this to learn the handshaking trick. Present your hand until he lifts his foot to step onto it. Take hold of his foot with your fingers as if shaking his hand. Immediately use your bridge and present the reward, preferably before he actually steps onto your hand. Start using your chosen command when you see he is about to place his foot on your hand. Repeat this in bouts of 10 to 15 minutes, spaced well throughout the day. Soon your cockatoo will understand the chain of events of command, hand shaking, bridge and reward.

You can read more about training your cockatoo at The Clicker Method.