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Can I train a pet bird to like being petted?

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Question: Can I train a pet bird to like being petted?
Answer: Getting your bird to accept being petted is not training so much, as being in tune to their behavior and clues and working with the personality of the bird. Some birds are natural born cuddlers, some take a while to warm up to the idea of contact, and others may never get to the point of wanting to be petted.

Personality
Birds are not like dogs, who generally like petting and will take contact from just about anyone. Birds vary greatly in how they like contact: some birds like physical contact while others like their personal space, and most are more likely to accept contact from people they know well. If you have a bird that does not like to be touched, you will need to approach your bird very slowly in order to make your bird comfortable with contact. Ultimately, you may just have to accept that your bird is not going to be a cuddly bird, since persisting in petting a bird that just doesn't like contact is going to erode your bird's trust. If you do have a cuddly bird that likes human contact, it probably won't take much effort at all to get your bird asking for cuddles by lowering its head to you.

Bird Body Language
When approaching training your bird to accept petting, the first step is to read the cues your bird is giving you. Remember that reaching for your bird's head to pet it may be perceived as a threat by your bird, especially if you try to reach the back of the head. Does your bird assume a stiff posture and stare at you when you approach it? Does he or she run away, or try to push you away or even try to bite? These are clear signs that the bird is not comfortable with what is happening. If you ignore the body language of a stressed bird, you may get bitten! On the other hand, a bird that likes being petted is relaxed, and will often turn its head a bit to the side or even bow its head down for scratches and petting. Some will bow their heads down and close their eyes, a sign of a happy bird that fully trusts that petting is not a threat.

Getting Comfortable with Petting
You can do a little bit of training to get your bird more comfortable with the idea of being petted. As with other forms of training, practice in short frequent sessions and stick to small steps at first.

  • Choose a quiet time when your bird is relaxed.
  • Keep your hand in full view of the bird.
  • Speak to your bird before petting him or her.
  • Try just lightly touching and petting the beak at first.
  • If your bird lets you touch his/her beak, try gradually moving your fingers to the skin on the face just behind the beak.
  • Use a very gentle touch.
  • Work your way around the side of the head.
  • Work with the natural orientation of the feathers -- petting the "wrong way" can be irritating. Pet either in the direction the feathers naturally lay down, or gently scratch side to side between the feathers.
  • Eventually, as the bird relaxes (a bird that is enjoying being petted will often ruffle its feathers and bow its head) you can work your way around to the back of the head and neck.
  • Don't try to force your bird to like petting.
  • Don't expect your bird to accept petting from strangers.

Not Too Much, and Stick With the Head
A good cuddle is nice for you and your bird, but it is a good idea to avoid excessive petting and to avoid petting the back and body of your bird. A mature bird may find this stimulating and may result in a sexually frustrated bird, which in turn may lead to behavior issues. Make sure petting doesn't become the only way to interact with your bird; ensure you are socializing with your bird in other ways (tricks, games, exploring, toys, talking, just being together).

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