Training Tidbit – Shaping

Training is a process. It’s a science, in that we know the laws of behaviour. If you want a behaviour to happen again, reinforce it. Training is also an art. There is a delicate balance between reinforcing exactly what you want to see and reinforcing each small step TOWARDS your end goal. The technical term for this is: Shaping.

Think of behaviour like a lump of clay. At first, you might have an unrecognizable blob. Your end goal is to make a bowl. That doesn’t happen without some guidance, gentle manipulation and skill. Put the clay on a wheel, spin it around, and place your hands just so. Once you have things in place you can mould and shape the clay into a bowl, bit by bit. After some practice, you have a bowl.


Shaping behaviour happens in much the same way. At first your bird might be giving all sorts of behaviour you don’t want to see. Starting by reinforcing something (anything): this will be like that lump of clay. It doesn’t matter what it looks like when you start. Start reinforcing and shaping towards your end goal behaviour. Step by step, part by part, piece by piece, selecting for behaviours you want to see again. Shaping behaviours to be slightly longer or slightly bigger. The more you shape, the further you get.

The size of each shaping step is determined by your parrot. This is called an “approximation”. Think of it as the next step in the process. How big of a step, how much, how high, how often, will be different for each learner. Each step will be up to you to reinforce. Sometimes a step is large, and your bird learns quickly. Sometimes the step is small, and your bird still need it to be even smaller. It’s your job to help him learn, by shaping and small approximations that are achievable. This chart might help. (Courtesy of Dr Susan Friedman and Behaviour Works www.behaviourworks.org)

This process is about whatever your parrot needs to be successful. Shaping behaviour takes time, but ultimately allows for your parrot to be successful. Instead of waiting for a behaviour to appear, shape it! Instead of waiting for a bowl to appear, shape it! And if you would like help to devise a shaping plan, please contact me. I’m here to help!

- Robin Horemans KPA CTP, Calgary Bird School

www.calgarybirdschool.com