Tips for harness training your parrot

Tips for harness training your parrot

So… It’s not exactly summer outside. At least not where I live; the photo below is my balcony in Sweden right now. Bad timing for a post on harness training, you might think… But it’s actually the perfect time for one! This is because harness training isn’t just about strapping a harness on the bird, going putside and hoping for the best – it takes training, at least if we want to do it well, and if we want our bird to actually enjoy spending time outside in the harness. So, starting to work on it now means you’ll be ready as soon as spring arrives again, instead of having to spend potential outdoor-time on it then.



First off: harness training can be tricky. Even though all training is basically the same, some things about harness training is very different from teaching a trick for example. Some owners have great success, some less success, and this post will be about some of the things that I feel it’s easy to forget when you are new to harness training parrots that will make a big difference. Just like being harnessed, being toweled can be an awful experience, or a wonderful one. Can you guess how Eris is feeling about it? : )

As opposed to when teaching, say, a wave, where the bird just have to lift his foot to earn a reinforcer, we now need to teach the bird to like to have something wrapped around it’s body; something that can be really scary to many species and individuals, and this is indeed a bit trickier!
What this means is that we as trainers need to be very, very observant, looking a lot closer at each response we get from the animal, always paying attention to that ever so revealing body language to avoid creating fear or unease.


Eris is calm, relaxed and enjoying our interaction with the towel – you can tell by her body language!


For example: two birds putting their heads through a head loop in an aviator harness can look vastly different. One might have relaxed feathers, almond shaped eyes, it’s weight distributed evenly and reach in to the loop without hesitation to earn it’s treat. Another bird might have big, round eyes, the feathers on the head/body lying flat, the bird “standing high” on his legs with the wings tightly folded against it’s body, making it’s neck as long as it can, and with twitchy motions try to get the treat that you are holding on the other side of loop, quickly pulling his head out again as soon as he’s got it.

What does this tell us? In the first example, we have a relaxed bird enjoying the experience. The perfect time to move forward with the training.
The other example… Well, even though this bird is doing the same thing as the first one, it’s notfeeling the same way about doing it. Here’s where most people go wrong and keep trying to push the bird even though he’s doing everything in his power to tell you he’s uncomfortable. Sure, he is reaching for the treat after all – apparently he wants it really bad – but he is not having fun.

What we are doing in the second example is actually hindering the learning process in the long run by making things too difficult for the bird and working him when he is too stressed! If a bird is presenting the same or similar body language: take it back a notch. Work more on just being close to the harness and presenting relaxed body language, and make sure that everything you do with the harness leads (no pun intended) to a pleasant experience for the parrot. Or, like Barbara Heidenreich puts it: “Take it slow to get there fast!”

Here’s a video of some early harness training with a relaxed and eager student, my Grey parrot Eris. I am doing a few minor mistakes though, see if you can spot them! This was early on in the training, hence the very frequent reinforcement. Also notice she is not even thinking about biting the harness, since she has learned that doesn’t earn her good stuff.



Some additional quick tips:

  • Always pay close attention to body language so that you never make the bird uncomfortable.
  • Reward heavily and frequently, especially early on in the training process. Remember that the more reinforcement history your bird has with the harness, the less chance you will have to move back in the training process if something your bird doesn’t like were to happen.
  • Divide the harness training into super tiny steps (being close to the harness, moving towards the harness, being calm while you hold the harness, putting their head a tiny bit into the head loop… etc) and do not move to the next one if the parrot is not showing comfortable and relaxed body language at the current step.
  • Choose your training sessions wisely. Don’t try to work on harness training (sitting still, paying attention) if your parrot is in the middle of a hyper-fit. Instead, work on some flight training or tricks where he can move around, and save the harness training to when the bird is calm and relaxed.
  • Don’t be a tease. Do not present a treat and try to pull it away slowly when the bird reaches for it to “get more behavior”. That will just make your parrot frustrated, and teach it that reaching for treats results in them being moved away, and, by proxy, that harness training sucks. Presenting a treat is like a making a contract: “Get here and it’s yours”. We don’t break contracts!
  • Remember that getting the harness on the bird is not all. We also need to work on feeling relaxed outdoors (by for example desensitizing to the great outdoors from a travel cage or aviary), not to mention getting the harness off!


Good luck!

About the author

Stephanie Edlund administrator

Stephanie is the owner of Understanding Parrots. She works professionally as a zookeeper and bird trainer and is a certified parrot behavior consultant with the IAABC, where she is also the chairperson of the parrot division.

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