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Harness Training

Expert Question

Hello, My name is Nina. I am from Bulgaria. We have two year old Cacatua Gallerita. Her name is Rea (it is not proved she is a female, it was told to us from a breeder). So far, we didn’t have any problems with her. We want to teach her to fly with a harness. This is a problem for us , because she doesn’t want to wear it. She is now a flighted bird . Flies around all house. She was clipped twice first year, but now we decided to let her fly. It is o.k. with us , but it is a problem when trying to wear the harness.

She is so unwilling of this and always flies away from the perch . She is not afraid of harness itself - she plays with it , but she is afraid of when we try to wear it on her. Otherwise she is very cuddly and gives her wings any way . What should we do to make her life better? How can we show her that the harness is not so awful to wear? Should we clip her wings once more to force her and to wear the harness or this will be a big mistake? Please , help us and thank you in advance

Expert Answer

Hello Nina, You pose some very good questions. I’ll say first that I like to teach birds to wear a harness, but I don’t like them for actually ‘flying’ a bird with. I think they make a great safety device to back up solid training when you take a bird outside. There are many potential problems with trying to fly them in a harness, one is that, even with elastic leashes, the bird comes to an abrupt halt when they hit the end of the leash, resulting injury. Even without injury, the experience of an abrupt halt could make the harness an unpleasant thing for the bird afterwards. Another problem is the the bird somehow getting the leash free, or too much line, so that it gets tangled up in a tree or worse, where you can’t help untangle and retrieve the bird. That would very dangerous. Forcing a bird into a harness is a really bad idea. It might work once, maybe twice, but it could damage your relationship or cement in the bird’s memory that the harness is a ‘bad thing’.

Since your bird is not afraid of the harness, teaching her to wear it is fairly straight forward, using the gradual teaching strategy call shaping. Especially since she’s comfortable having you handle her wings and body. That helps a lot. But you want to go about it at the bird’s pace, using lots of positive reinforcement for each small step. Just as important as putting the harness on, is taking it off. The one I have ruffles my bird’s head feathers backwards when removing it, so we’ve had to work on making a game out of her pulling her head out of close quarters. Otherwise a few times of that can make the bird decide it wants nothing to do with the harness.

Barbara Heidenreich has a good video showing how she trained two birds to wear a harness. It’s very clear and helpful. Here’s the video

Really though, I’d discourage the idea of training flight with a harness. A better alternative for flying is to find large buildings that will let you use or rent the space to practice inside. The harness is good as a backup safety device when out and about but your bird must be supervised at all times when wearing a harness, so that s/he doesn’t chew through it or get a body part stuck.

Thanks for the question, Nina!

Dana McDonald

Susan Friedman, PhD & LLP Course Graduates
About Susan Friedman, PhD & LLP Course Graduates

Susan G. Friedman, Ph.D., is currently a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Utah State University. A Behaviourist for more than 25 years, her area of expertise is learning and behaviour with a special emphasis on children’s behaviour disorders. 

In the last several years, Susan has helped pioneer efforts to apply to animals the humane philosophy and scientifically sound teaching technology from the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis, which has been so effective with human learners. The guiding principle of this approach is a hierarchy of teaching interventions starting with the most positive, least intrusive, effective behaviour solutions.
Susan is a steadfast proponent of changing behaviour through facilitation rather than force. These tools of facilitation focus on animals’ extraordinary biologic capacity to learn by interacting with their environment. She teaches that by changing the environment for success, animals learn to behave successfully. Susan currently teaches Living and Learning with Parrots: The Fundamental Principles of behaviour several times a year. (See for more information and links to her recent articles.)

Susan is the first author on two recently completed chapters on learning and behaviour for two new avian veterinary texts (in press, Harrison and Lightfoot’s Clinical Avian Medicine and Luescher’s Manual Parrot behaviour) and enjoys contributing to and learning from several internet lists on parrot behaviour. She is a core member of the California Condor Recovery Team and takes every opportunity to work with companion animal caregivers, veterinarians, animal trainers and zookeepers to empower and enrich the lives of all learners. Foremost in this interdisciplinary effort is her passion for and commitment to working with companion parrots and their caregivers.