How to Potty Train a Bird

How to Potty Train a Bird

How to Potty Train a Parrot 2 weeks

If ever there's been a rewarding bird behavior you can teach, it's potty training parrots. Those who 'housebreak' their birds save countless hours of cleaning and enjoy pet bird companionship a whole lot more! Spending time with your bird doesn't have to end in soiled clothing or furniture. The stigma of "bird poop everywhere" need not be if you follow the, easy-to-do, BARRS™ Method of training.

What is the BARRS Method?
The BARRS™ method, Behavior- Association-Reward-Reinforcement-System, is a short course in applying the most widely used potty training technique for pet birds, behavior association through reward reinforcement—the art of getting your bird to associate a behavior (going potty) with visual and/or verbal cues using positive feedback.

As you read through this guide, you will likely find the following two characteristics to be true of the BARRS™ method: The method is simple and the principles are familiar; you've probably already used them.

Goals of the BARRS™ Method
The BARRS™ method teaches potty training with two goals in mind. The primary goal is to teach your bird to go potty on your command. This behavior can be taught to most companion birds, including cockatiel and conures to cockatoos and macaws, in two weeks or less. The second goal is to encourage your bird to return to its cage or T-stand to go potty. Success with this goal depends on your bird and circumstances. For example, birds that are unable to fly and are not provided a cage ladder would be unable to return to their cage and, therefore, may not be good candidates for such learning.

Preparation for Potty Training
The following is a list of things to do for optimum training results:

1.  If you've just purchased a bird of any age, be sure to allow adequate time for your bird to adapt to you and its new surroundings (at least three to four weeks) and become hand tame. Newly purchased birds endure a measure of stress when placed in a new environment. Premature training would only add to it.

2.  Begin taking note of your bird's actions just prior to and during a dropping. Learn to recognize these unique behaviors your bird displays. Some birds will give you small clues just before they drop while others will make a production out of it. In either case, recognizing when your bird is about to go potty simplifies training and will be helpful later on.

3.  Begin timing your bird's droppings to determine its cycle. For example, some birds will drop every 15 to 20 minutes under normal conditions. In this example, the minimum drop cycle would be every 15 minutes, and the maximum would be every 20 minutes. Knowing how frequently your bird goes potty is a must for efficient training.

4.  Establish a special treat you can give your bird as a reward. For example, try Cheerios™. Avoid choosing a food item from your bird's daily diet. Make it something special for your bird to look forward to. Using such a treat will enhance the learning process, particularly in the first two weeks of training. Consider putting together a treat cup made from a small jar or plastic container with a lid. It will save time and make it convenient to have a treat nearby.

5.  Decide on a verbal command that's not used in ordinary conversation, such as "drop" or  "poop." If you're training more than one bird, it's advisable to use different commands for each bird to avoid unexpected droppings by the bird not being addressed. For birds that are likely to talk, be sure and choose a command you can live with. Many bird owners use small phrases successfully, such as "go potty." The single syllable words given above as examples are suggested for their simplicity.

6.  If you do not already own a portable, table-top T-perch, consider getting one. Although it's possible to house train a bird without one, it is highly recommended. It will make training easier and more convenient for you and your bird. To find a portable T-perch, start by checking out our gallery page of table-top bird perches. There you'll get an idea of what's available online or at local pet stores that sell bird supplies. For those of you with the time and tools, making your own T-perch is another option. If you do acquire a new T-perch, set the T-perch in a location visible to your bird at least one week prior to T-Perch training. Birds are keenly aware of their surroundings and may be uneasy about perching on something they've never seen.

Cage Potty Training
Most, if not all, birds have no problem using their cage as a place to go potty. However, many of these same birds will have no problem going potty on you or your furniture as well. The object of cage training is to get your bird to prefer the cage over you or your furniture. This is done by rewarding your bird each time you notice the bird go potty while inside the cage. Respond immediately by using positive reinforcement. This can include both a food treat and verbal praise. (Note: If you remove the bird from the cage as part of the reward, your bird may come to expect it.) Many birds go potty right after waking up or when they see you opening the cage door. If this is your bird, take advantage of it, and give your bird verbal praise. By immediately rewarding your bird, you will be reinforcing the behavior of going potty in the cage and teaching your bird that it's worth the effort to return to the cage whenever it's time to go potty. Be sure to include a ladder if needed. Avoid using any verbal commands during cage training. While the bird is in its cage, it should feel free to go potty, at will, without being told to do so.

T-Perch Potty Training
Potty training using a T-perch can begin as soon as your bird is hand tame and you've established a reward your bird looks forward to. Use the following guidelines for T-perch training:

1.  Find a convenient location in the home for the T-perch, and keep it there until your bird begins going potty on command. By keeping the T-perch in a single location to start with, your bird will make the needed associations faster than if the perch is being moved around. After your bird begins responding to your command on a consistent basis, the T-perch can be moved about and used elsewhere for your convenience. TIP: Particularly in the beginning, choose a location with the fewest possible distractions—people, animals, etc.

2.  To begin an actual bird potty training session, start by noting the time your bird last dropped. Then wait for the minimum drop cycle time to pass. To make this part really easy, purchase an inexpensive, digital, kitchen timer, and set it to your bird's cycle time. Also, some multi-functional watches have countdown alarms that work great. Once the minimum cycle time has passed, position your bird on the portable T-perch, and begin giving the verbal command every two to three seconds, while watching for those unique behaviors mentioned in the preparation section. Avoid using small talk between commands, such as "come on sweetie" or "you can do it." This will make it easier for your bird to associate the right command with the desired action. If your bird leaves the T-perch during training, be sure and return the bird to the T-perch to complete the session.

3.  Once your bird performs, immediately respond with a reward. Such a reward may include a treat, praise and removing the bird from the perch. If you remove the bird from the perch as part of the reward, your bird will come to expect it. This is fine if you don't plan to use the T-perch as a temporary stand for your bird to stay on. Remember, the sooner you respond with your reward the quicker your bird will learn through association.

4.  Repeat the above steps three to four times consecutively to complete a single training session. At least one session should be conducted each day until your bird associates dropping with the T-perch, your command and the reward. For quicker learning, multiple sessions or longer sessions can be given each day. Unlike training for other behaviors, potty training provides its own natural breaks which help prevent your bird from becoming bored or frustrated. Do avoid training when your bird is irritable or moody and least likely to be receptive.

Once your bird is going potty on command, continue the T-perch training without using the command. This will reinforce the association your bird makes between going potty and the sight of the T-perch. In addition, begin using the T-perch at different locations to further develop the visual association. Many birds will learn to return to the portable T-perch, but to do so they must have access to the T-perch, which may include a small ladder or climbable toy to get to the perch dowel.

By using these guidelines, you should see results within two weeks and possibly sooner, depending on your bird and how often you train. Hand-fed, younger birds that are well adapted are usually the easiest to train. Birds that are given more than one session a day will also train quickly. Older birds are trainable too, but with habits and personality well established, they are less predictable. Some will learn very quickly while others may take longer.

How to Potty Train Your Bird to 'GO' on Paper
Getting your bird to go potty on paper requires the same techniques used in T-perch training. Simply place your bird on a sheet of paper when it's time for your bird to potty, and give your verbal command until the bird performs. Immediately respond with a reward, and your bird will learn to go potty on a piece of paper. If your bird wanders off the paper before dropping, be sure and return the bird immediately and continue training.

Paper training, however, does have one possible drawback. Your bird may associate all paper as a place to "go" without your command, leaving similar, unattended loose paper at risk. This is a potential problem for birds that are allowed to roam freely.

Hand/Arm Potty Training
Getting your bird to go potty on command while it's perched on your hand or arm requires the same techniques used in T-perch training. Simply give the command while the bird is perched on your hand or arm, and have the bird go potty on a sheet of paper or in a trash can. Then reward the bird to establish the behavior as acceptable. Before using your arm or hand as a potty perch, carefully consider the pros and cons.

Pros: Hand/Arm training is convenient when the bird's portable T-perch and cage are unavailable. For example, "walking your bird" outdoors or being in another room of the house will likely require you to make some accommodation. Since birds go potty frequently, they should not be expected to hold it for prolonged periods of time. Going potty off the hand or arm provides some control over what would otherwise be indiscriminate droppings.

Cons: Using the hand/arm in this manner is likely to establish unwanted visual associations. For example, your bird may associate your arm or hand as the acceptable cue for going potty in addition to the verbal command. If this happens, you'll not only have unwanted droppings from your arm or hand, but a behavior association that will be hard to reverse.

However, many bird owners who use their hand or arm as a potty perch become so aware of their bird's drop cycle that they automatically know when to return the bird to its T-perch or cage. When combined with the fact many birds will hold it for a few extra minutes (or longer) and/or exhibit behavior that forewarns their owner, the issue of arm/hand training may not be as important to some. The only other concern would be for house guests who enjoy holding your bird, but lack the insight to avoid being dropped on.

Potty Training In General

Regardless of where you train your bird to go potty, consider the associations your bird could make. Birds can just as easily make a visual association as they can a verbal association. When you reward your bird immediately after a positive behavior and do this repeatedly in a consistent setting, your bird will begin to identify all the things that have remained consistent, giving equal weight to each. For example, if you choose to use hand/arm training, your bird may not recognize your verbal potty command as the only key to respond. Your bird may give equal weight to the visual sight of being on your hand or arm as a key to respond, since both the verbal and visual are always together. For this reason, hand/arm training is usually not promoted for potty training, whereas T-perch training is. This is not to say that you'll never be dropped on by your T-perch-trained bird. Your bird will have its own say-so from time to time.

Behavior Maintenance

As time passes, and habits take root, food treats can be discontinued. Nevertheless, keep the following in mind when parrot potty training: Always praise and love on your bird for positive behavior. If your bird does not go potty on your command, it could be that your timing is off, and there is nothing there. Know when to give your bird the benefit of the doubt, and try again in a few minutes. If your bird is caught dropping on you or your furniture, and you're convinced the bird knows better, issue a stern "NO" immediately afterwards. Then, place the bird in its cage or on its T-perch for a minute or two, and give your potty command as a reminder. Never punish a bird by beak tapping, tail swatting or becoming angry. Although birds often assume an attitude that needs to be dealt with, such responses can only cause your bird to become fearful, mean and difficult to train. Also, birds with clipped wings or those hindered from getting to their cage or T-perch should be given special consideration for indiscriminate droppings.

In Summary
The key points to remember on how to potty train a pet bird using the BARRS method are these:

1.  Be consistent in working with your bird. Try to make each session similar to the previous one. In doing so, your bird's associations will be consistent each time you train, and you'll avoid giving your bird mixed signals.

2.  Learn to recognize your bird's unique behavior patterns. This includes their mood swings as well as their actions just prior to going potty. Doing so will make training easier.

3.  Always reward your bird immediately after a positive behavior. Waiting, even as little as two or three seconds, can give your bird time to become distracted and associate the wrong thing with your reward. Immediate responses create stronger associations and reduce training time.

4.  Be patient, and give your bird the time it needs. Training will vary from bird to bird. If your bird needs extra time, it will be well worth the effort to give it.

5.  Always remember to promote visual associations as the learning tool for cage training. It's important that your bird feels comfortable going potty in its cage without a command. This will also prevent any remote health concern over a bird learning to hold it in expectation of a verbal command. After your bird is well taught, seasoned in good potty behaviors, the occasional use of the verbal command is often helpful in getting the attention of a distracted bird. At such times, using the verbal command is not likely to pose a problem.

6.  Commit to the two week training period! It's a must if you want results.

Can you potty train a parrot or, as others might say, toilet train a bird? Absolutely! Simply reward your bird for the right behavior as you spend time together each day. If you do so, it won't be long before your bird is ready for show and tell. You'll enjoy the reaction of family and friends as your bird demonstrates his or her ability. But, more important, you will have made life much easier for you and your feathered companion.

© 1996 - 2013 Rick Swanson, All Rights Reserved