I often hear it said that a lot of parrot behavior problems stem from the bird thinking it is “dominant” to the humans, and that the way to control the parrot is to reestablish the person’s flock leader position.

But research has shown that not only is it not important to establish “dominance” with birds, it doesn’t work. Sometimes they’ll test you to see what they can get away with, but they aren’t like dogs or wolves in that they jockey for alpha status.

I’m a huge fan of clicker training and the philosophy espoused by Melinda Johnson who wrote the “Clicker Training for Birds” book. She advocates teaching “stupid parlor tricks” as a way to improve communication and therefore the relationship with your feathered friend. It’s not about forcing the bird to do what you want, it’s about teaching your bird to want the same thing you want and then doing it voluntarily.

When I got Stewie last July (from an animal shelter where they had no idea what to do with birds), he was one cranky little guy. In fact, I was a little worried that he didn’t like me and wouldn’t ever really be very fond of me. I started clicker training and it totally changed our relationship.

He learned that there are ways to communicate with me that don’t involve biting. I figured out how to read his body language to understand what he was trying to tell me.

He learned that he can manipulate me into giving him treats just by doing some silly tricks. I have a bird who does silly tricks for me.

We both have so much more fun together, and he’s become downright affectionate — something I never expected!

I believe wholeheartedly that we achieved this new relationship precisely because I didn’t try to establish “control.” In training, we are partners. Neither of us thinks “we’re in charge.” I respect his needs/wants (respect doesn’t always mean he always gets what he wants though…just like I don’t always get what I want either) and he does what I want him to because he wants to do it.

Stewie now steps up with no problem – whereas he used to bite my fingers whenever they were near him. The stepping up came completely naturally; I wasn’t even really trying to train him to step up. We worked on a lot of other tricks first and at some point he got so excited about going wherever it was I was going to take him that he started seeing me as a convenient method of transportation, and happily steps up when I offer him my arm 🙂

Clicker training is the best way to turn a cranky, biting bird into a loving pet. I know it, because I’ve seen the change in Stewie with my own eyes.

Related: Allowing Birds on Your Shoulder – OK or Not?

Updated: I just found this article by Susan Friedman on the discussion of “dominance”. It’s a good read. Check it out.