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Attempting Harness Use with a Fearful Galah

Expert Question

Hi, I have just bought a Galah, she is only 9 months old and I have had her for 2 months. The previous owner found her too much to put up with as they had an African Grey as well. I have found her to be a very sweet and loving little bird. She gets lots of attention, and has a great deal of mental stimulation. In the summer I would like to be able to take her with me when I am in my courtyard garden, as I feel she would benefit not only from the company, but different sights and noises etc. I purchased a feather tether harness but she is petrified of it. Also, I am wondering if she was ever mishandled or handled roughly because if I attempt to lift a wing or even touch underneath one, she makes a pitiful noise. So far, I have just placed the harness near her when she is out of the cage, but I was wondering if there was anything else I could do to stop her from being afraid. She was hand reared and only bites with excitement or fear, so she seems quite well balanced, for a cockatoo anyway. Thank you for any advice you can give me. Trudie, UK.

Expert Answer

G'day and thank you sincerely for sending your question in to WPT!

Sounds like your Galah has found a very caring and dedicated new home - awesome! Your question raises some really important issues and prompts some great food for thought about how we manage our companion parrots. I've pulled out a few key sections of your question and I'll do my best to offer some insights and advice on each for you...

'Garden Liberties & Getting Out and About'
I'm frequently asked about managing 'outside' time for companion parrots -- particularly here in Australia, where the weather is enticing and the natural environment is filled with stimulation and opportunities for visual and aural enrichment. It really does tend to encourage a lot of parrot owners to consider affording their companion bird some of the same experiences that the wild parrots flying through the neighbourhood enjoy. The sentiment and thinking behind offering some 'backyard adventure time' is very understandable. However, what we must always consider first is our responsibility in ensuring that whatever experiences we expose our parrots to, their safety is prioritised.

Personally, I would prefer to see thinking shift from pushing the boundaries of certain liberties via the use of harnesses, tethers or restraints, to the creation of a safe and secure outdoor enclosure. The purchase or design and construction of an outdoor enclosure can achieve all of the goals that a companion parrot owner has for extending the enrichment schedule for their pet bird -- without the lack of control over all of the potential variables that compromise safety when taking parrots outside. Outdoor enclosures that are thoughtfully designed, even in an area as small as a courtyard, can offer a fantastic richness of experiences and I would certainly encourage all companion parrot owners to consider taking the next step in achieving an additional environment option for their otherwise house bound parrot.

Moving your parrot from indoors to the outdoor enclosure then offers an excellent opportunity to develop some basic training skills with your parrot that will be useful in other facets of companion parrot keeping. Safe transport of our parrots from indoors to an outside enclosure requires 'pet pack' or 'crate' training. To access the best visual learning aid for achieving the training approximations involved in pet pack training I highly recommend checking out Barbara Heidenreich's DVD, 'Training your Parrot for the Veterinary Exam'. This great resource clearly demonstrates what is involved and the steps are achievable for parrot owners of all experience levels. I will add that in my experience it is much easier to train a parrot to enter an open wire 'carry cage' as opposed to a dark pet pack or crate. That's a bit of a 'hot tip' I guess for potentially achieving the behaviour faster for parrots who normally display an aversive response to attempts to encourage them into a traditional crate. If you've ever seen how long it takes a wild pair of parrots to take the plunge and go into a dark nest hole then you'll understand that there is a significant natural behavioural aversion to overcome in entering a dark enclosure. Once you have trained your parrot to enter your carry cage, crate, pet pack or whatever is achievable, you now have the additional benefit of making trips to the vet, boarding service or friend's places less stressful and much safer.

'Harness Use with Parrots'
You're probably still wondering about the harness option right? I'll have to admit to not being the biggest fan of the use of harnesses on parrots. Although I do not use harnesses with any of my birds, initially I really did have faith in the concept that if people engage in harness training it might lead to less wing clipping -- something I am a major vocal advocate for changing in our approach to keeping parrots as pets. Over time though, my experiences have reduced my willingness to embrace the harness option. Different people have different opinions, but as someone who works regularly with the companion parrot community, I've now seen more than enough misuse and poor training and application of harness wearing than I'm comfortable with. I'm also aware of some excellent parrot owners who have trained their parrot to wear a harness with a great degree of skill and consideration of the necessary steps in the desensitisation and familiarisation process that is critical in avoiding problem behaviours and undesirable responses to wearing a restraint. I simply don't have the confidence in the skills of most companion parrot owners I work with in advocating the use of a restraint on their parrot unless they have been guided by an experienced animal trainer.

Aside from the concern that the use of a harness can very easily lead to a false sense of security about the safety of the parrot when then provided with subsequent outdoor liberties, the greater concern for me is the potential for damage to the parrot-carer trust account if the training of accepting a harness is not properly achieved. In the case of our Galah here, this is absolutely critical and a necessary cautionary note for people keen to generalise about applying harnesses to any pet parrot without considering the differences we tend to see between individual birds in their response to potentially intrusive handling. The development of intense over-generalised fear responses or, on the flip-side, aggression, can easily occur as a result of improper training of harness wearing. Such behavioural problems can quickly manifest in parrots who we have observed displaying fear responses towards certain stimuli if we have failed to be considerate of this. Your Galah has already displayed an aversion to the harness and there is a risk of this aversion then extending towards your hands and you yourself in association with the harness if you attempt to place it on your Galah without being extremely careful in your training approximations. Some self-reflection and evaluation of whether you feel confident in achieving your goal without eroding the trust your Galah has in you is required but I'm doubtful whether your Galah is a great candidate for this training goal at this stage. If I haven't talked you out of it then my best advice is to follow a similar set of training approximations as those that Barbara Heidenreich uses for some of the behaviours shown in her 'Training for the Veterinary Exam' DVD, such as towelling. Barbara also has the only online article on harness training that I am comfortable referring interested people to and this can be located at If you access these resources first and succeed in developing a strong enough association with the harness and delivery of positively reinforcing consequences then hopefully you can avoid the potential pitfalls of failing to make the experience a rewarding one.

My advice -- acquire a well designed and safe outdoor enclosure, train your Galah to enter a carry cage so you can safely transport him from inside to outside and keep your trust account full!

Just finally…

'Only bites with excitement or fear'
Those few words set off some alarm bells for me as an experienced keeper of cockatoos because they really do suggest a level of acceptance of being bitten as part of parrot ownership. I would like to challenge you to reflect on the times when you or anyone in your Galah's environment has experienced a bite. We need to make sure that we accept responsibility for these encounters and arrange the environment and stimuli that may have previously led to such encounters in a different way to avoid a bite occurring in the future. What can start off early in the relationship as minor incidents can quickly develop into behaviours that intensify over time, and when it comes to biting -- prevention is most definitely better than cure.

Kind Regards from 'Down Under'
Jim McKendry
Parrot Behaviour & Enrichment Consultations

Jim McKendry
About Jim McKendry

Jim McKendry BTeach BAppSc (Wildlife Biology)

Jim provides consultancy services on parrot behaviour through Parrot Behaviour & Enrichment Consultations ( He holds Bachelor’s degrees in Teaching (ACU) and Applied Science (UQ) and is a Senior Biology and Environmental Sciences teacher. Jim’s approach to education on parrot behaviour aims to connect the behaviours we see amongst psittacines in the wild with those we observe in captivity to best inform environmental arrangement for behavioural success. An Applied Behaviour Analysis approach to assessing behaviour is the foundation of his consultancy assessments on individual parrot clients.

He has worked professionally as an Avian Trainer and Presentations Keeper at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary and since 2005 has delivered a series of annual workshops at the Sanctuary on progressive approaches to companion parrot behaviour and enrichment. From 2009 to 2011 Jim worked as the resident consultant on parrot behaviour and enrichment at Brisbane Bird and Exotics Veterinary Services. He is a professional member of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators ( and a member of the World Parrot Trust’s Expert Panel of educators.  Jim writes a regular column, Pet Parrot Pointers, for Australian Birdkeeper Magazine and is an editorial consultant on parrot behaviour for this publication.

Visit Jim’s site on the web at