This is a continuation of the counter-conditioning diary I started last issue. I am working with my Eclectus parrot, Kokoda, who I would like to teach to happily accept wearing a harness. In the last issue, we had made a start on the process of gradually introducing the harness to Kokoda and pairing it with some yummy treats.

Read part 1 of my diary here.

To recap, my plan is to counter-condition Kokoda to the following elements of being harnessed:

  1. The sight of the harness
  2. The harness moving towards her
  3. The harness moving around, or near her
  4. Moving my hands towards her face and beak
  5. Placing her beak through the harness
  6. The wing hole of the harness going over her head, starting with the largest setting and gradually decreasing to the appropriate size
  7. Her wings being handled
  8. The harness being tightened around her midsection
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Here I’m just gently moving the harness over Kokoda’s head and towards her neck.  In this video, I start to gradually reduce the size of the hole she is putting her head through, as well as lowering it slightly towards her neck.  At around 4:51 I lower it a little too far, or perhaps put a little too much weight on her neck, and she growls at me. This is a definite sign that I need to return to a presentation of the stimulus that she was previously comfortable with.

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I start this time with the hole wider again, and then gradually make it smaller. About 3:00 minutes in, she pulls away during one repetition. You can see me hesitate to move the harness further over her head, and then again on the following repetitions I try to take it a bit slower.  In this video, I am also trying to hold it over her for just slightly longer time periods. Towards the end of the video I begin to very gently let the harness touch the back of her neck, but without letting the weight of the harness actually rest on her.

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For most of this video, we are working on getting her head through a significantly smaller hole, which is much closer to the head hole size (which is so small that it’s impossible to get over her head without it touching her).

Around 2:55 I place the harness on her neck and let her have the full weight, and you can see she is uncomfortable with this.  So for the next repetition, I give her some of the weight but keep most on my fingers. You’ll see a bit of fiddling with the harness in this video as I am trying to position it in a way that isn’t going to put too much weight on her if I place it on her neck.

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The first three or so minutes of this video aren’t great; I feel we have a few moments where Kokoda isn’t keen on what we are doing. After 3:30, things get better. In this section, I am placing the head hole of the harness over her head, which is an added layer of difficulty as the hole is quite small, especially when taking it off again.

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We have progressed in this video; we are doing further work on placing the harness head hole over Kokoda’s head and then very gently placing some of the weight of the harness on her neck, gradually working up to the full weight.  In this video, you can see Kokoda reaching out, stretching her neck toward me and opening her mouth to solicit more food from me. I wait until she does this in an effort to capture this behaviour, as it can be turned into her voluntarily offering her head through the harness.

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In this session, I have added the use of the target stick, as I wanted to mix things up and keep Kokoda interested. Target training has a really high value to her and is a behaviour she is always happy to engage in. I have also changed reinforcers; I discovered that she is very motivated by soaked chia seeds, so I modified a syringe and began using this as her reinforcer. At this time, I noticed a very positive trend in how she responds to the harness. In this video, she is now becoming visibly excited at the presence of the harness: moving towards it, leaning towards it, and opening her mouth when she spots it. I have now started using the cues “head through” and “off”—these are cues I will use when the behaviour is complete. They will also provide her with notification that I am removing the harness. We are working on some longer duration now, with the harness hanging over her body; the soaked chia has proven to be very good for this as well.  She stays nice and relaxed throughout the whole session even when I am taking the harness off.

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I decided to change location and started working with Kokoda on the coffee table so that I could place the harness over her head and rest it against her back without the weight of it dragging down on her. As you can see, we have had a breakthrough—she is voluntarily sticking her head through the harness now with a lure! We are now working on longer duration with the weight of the harness on her body rather than on and off regularly. I also tried touching her wings gently during this video, as that is the next step in the process. This makes her slightly uncomfortable; she either pulls her wing away or moves away from my hand. We need to do a lot more work on this step. I ended with a couple of easy repetitions to make sure we finished on a positive note. Getting the harness back off is still a little messy and needs more work.

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In this video, I am working on fading the lure for the “head through” behaviour so that it is not reliant on a lure in future, and also reducing from continuous reinforcement while the harness is on to a variable interval schedule of reinforcement. Once I start work on handling, I will be using a different reinforcer (probably sunflower seeds) for this behaviour so that I can keep the higher-value reinforcer (currently passionfruit-soaked chia seeds) specifically for counter-conditioning to handling and harness tightening. Removing the harness is slowly becoming easier as Kokoda learns how to place her head to help me remove it.

Lee Stone CPDT-KA is the owner of DogTag Dog Training in Port Hedland, Western Australia. Lee has a passion for anything animal behaviour and is working towards building a multi-species behaviour consulting business.