The Bridge

The bridge, usually a sound like a click or whistle, is an important part of training with positive reinforcement. You may already be familiar with bridges, especially if you have attended a dog obedience class. Metal clicker boxes have become a popular way of training dogs: ask the dog to “sit,” and as soon as his butt hits the ground, you click and give a treat. The click marks the sit behavior, essentially telling the dog, “THAT is exactly what I want you to do, a treat is coming!” It is more precise than using treats alone. After sitting, the dog might stand up by the time he eats the treat; without a click, the dog might think the reward was for standing. The clicker acts as a bridge, appropriately named because it bridges the gap of time between the behavior you want (sitting) and when they get the reward.

The bridge can be any sound or symbol the animal learns to associate with food. I simply make a “cluck” sound with my tongue for our birds. In this short video, I use the bridge to teach Carson to touch the target stick. Now that you know what the bridge means, watch the video carefully to answer these questions:

  • What mistake do I make with the bridge when Carson touches the target stick?
  • How can you tell that she understands what the bridge means?

Could you spot my mistake? In this session, multitasking with my camera divided my attention and I actually bridged AFTER she touched the target, a second too late. If she didn’t already understand the target behavior, a late bridge could have confused her even more. Did you notice how she responded to the bridge? Looking around in different directions, she searched for the food she knew she earned. Rest assured that after I set the camera down, she got a juicy reward!

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Reading body language

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Examples of stress, comfort, and ultimate relaxation in great horned owls.

Body language is everything. It tells me when Theo is comfortable with the situation. It also tells me when I have pushed him too far past his comfort zone, potentially deteriorating the trust between us. When it comes to reading these stress signals, owls tend to be very subtle. A kestrel might alarm-call loudly and fly away in a stressful situation, but an owl might stand perfectly still and simply wink one eye. They may rely on blending into the background to avoid confrontations; great horned owls will raise the tufts of feathers on top of their head to enhance their camouflage. They will even hiss and clack their beak if the threat continues. These three responses can be seen in the example photo on the left: winking eye, feather tufts raised, and beak open in a hiss. This is not a happy owl. When I see these signs in a training session with Theo, I listen. I slow down to make him feel more comfortable.

Now contrast that with the owl in the center photo. He is standing comfortably with feather tufts lowered and is watching something in the distance, not the photographer. He is calm and not worried about anything around him. When Theo is not interested in training, he will often turn away and look outside. Ignoring me is one of the biggest signs of trust he can give. One behavior I am still waiting to see with Theo is a stretch, like the one pictured on the right. Stretches and preening are comfort behaviors that can make the bird more vulnerable, so they are only done when it feels extremely safe. When I see Theo reach out a wing and a foot, I’ll know that I’m okay in his book.

Travel crates

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The view inside Theo’s crate.

Anytime the birds are in a program or traveling, they rest inside a crate. These custom-made boxes have solid walls with small holes for ventilation. It might not seem like a pleasant place to us, but the dark environment helps the bird feel calm when outside the mew. Raptors are easily agitated by visual stimuli. Whether there is just one person or one hundred, watching unpredictable strangers in an unfamiliar place can be scary for the birds. Their sharp eyesight might help them spot a quick-footed mouse in the wild, but also makes for some stressful situations for an education bird. Their dark, secure crates help them stay calm by blocking their view of the activity around them.

Inside a training session: Carson’s “Ah ha!” moment

I hold the target stick about one foot away from Carson. She steps over to stand next to it. In our previous training sessions, I would have rewarded her for that movement. But she has been doing so well moving toward the target that she is ready for the next step: actually touching it. With no way to simply explain what I need her to do, I can only wait. She looks between me and the target a few times before stretching her head forward. I quickly give her a treat. Even though she didn’t touch it, I want to tell her she is going in the right direction. Now her interest is piqued and I can practically see the gears turning in her head: how do I earn another chunk of rat? Her eyes focus on the target as she tips her head to one side. She realizes this strange stick is the key to earning her food, but she doesn’t know what to do with it. She takes a half-step closer and looks up at me hopefully: is this worth a treat? I don’t respond so she looks back to the target and bobs her head. After a moment she moves forward and nips at the target. Contact! I offer her a heap of tidbits as her jackpot prize. I am overjoyed to see this breakthrough and Carson is just as excited to understand with her “Aha!” moment.