A long time ago I decided to buy the Aviator Harness for Mika. Last weekend I finally got it out and introduced it to both the birds.

Mika checks out the Aviator Harness

The Aviator Harness comes with a DVD, which I have to admit I haven’t watched yet 🙁 Apparently you’re not supposed to watch it where your birds can see it, and well, the TV is in the same room as the birds’ cages. I tend to be the kind of person who tries to figure things out without the instruction. (Caveat: I also break things because I don’t read the instructions, so I really don’t advise following my lead in that regard.)

I know from doing lots of reading and understanding the principles of positive reinforcement training that the key is to take is slow and make sure the birds only associate good things with the harness. Any early setback with it can cause the birds to panic and become afraid of it, pretty much ruining your chances of ever getting it on them again.

With that in mind, I started off just showing it to them and playing with it myself. I draped it on my desk and then held it up to them while feeding them treats for being calm. Just seeing the harness didn’t really phase either of my parrots, so I moved on to step 2: asking them to put their heads near and through the harness loop.

Harness Training Mika

Here is a video of my pionus being introduced to the Aviator Harness and being asked to target near or through the large loop.

Mika, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is not that highly motivated when it comes to training. I kind of think that she doesn’t “look” like she’s having a lot of fun (because she doesn’t act “eager”) even though I do think she enjoys it. I say that because she could quit anytime she wanted to, but she always ends up coming around and doing the behavior (even if she gets distracted and/or takes a few detours).

This video shows training that isn’t really that great. For one thing, I think it would be helpful to have a “marker” but I just didn’t think I could juggle the props, treats and a clicker very well. Luckily Mika is quite familiar with targeting, so she already understands that biting the target is what got her the treat. If the asked-for behavior was simply to put her head a certain distance through the loop, you could see how the timing of the treat delivery would be very confusing for her. (I.e., without a clicker marking the precise point of the completed behavior, she could easily think in some of those reps that beaking the harness is what led to the treat, since she does the behavior, then beaks the harness, then gets a treat.)

I also like using the target in conjunction with the harness because it requires her to actively participate in the training. Rather than luring her or asking her to sit still while I move the harness, she knows that she’s making a choice to earn her reward. Once we move forward, however, I’m not sure that I’ll be able to juggle the leash, the treat and the target stick while also manipulating her wings through the harness, so I may end up dropping that part of it moving forward.

Harness Training Stewie

When I first bought the harness for Mika, I didn’t even bother getting one for Stewie, the sun conure — I didn’t think he’d want any part of it. At that point, he did not like being touched in any way, shape or form (although he’s come around a lot in that respect since then – now he allows me to scratch his head and neck) and I just couldn’t imagine that I’d ever be able to get this on him.

However, the first part of it (getting him comfortable around the harness and putting his head through the loop) turned out to be really easy. He’s very food motivated and has “targeting” down cold. He seemed very comfortable putting his head through the loop to nip the target stick and get his reward.

(I apologize for the poor quality of the video.)

With Stewie, I asked him to put his head through the small loop because he seemed ready for a bit more advanced work. However, this specific harness is also too large for him, so the opening isn’t as tight as it would be if I had gotten a conure-sized Aviator Harness. If the training continues to go well and he ends up letting me put his wings through this one, then I’ll go ahead and get one in his size.

Because Stewie is so food-focused and isn’t really into toys, I didn’t have any problems with him trying to chew on it. Mika, on the other hand, likes to explore with her beak and wanted to chew on the harness, something you’re supposed to discourage.

Next Steps for Harness Training

The next step is to get both the birds comfortable with the harness draped across their backs. If we continue to take it slow, I don’t think that part will be problematic either, but I do worry about what we’re going to do once I need to manipulate their wings to fit through the large loop. Neither of them is really keen on me touching their wings and safflower seeds might not be good enough to entice them to cooperate with that part of the work.

Wish us luck!