Why train a chicken?

What Chickens Can Teach A Dog Trainer
By Al Winder, CPDT-KA

I’m a dog trainer, so why would I want to train a chicken?  Dogs are so easy to train—given the right motivation, they can learn just about any behavior we humans dream up that their bodies can physically do, they enjoy our company and they can learn words. The chicken, however, while social with its own kind, doesn’t give a hoot about human company and even less about our superior verbal skills. Its life requirements are simple: eat, reproduce and avoid being eaten, and the range of its behaviors supports those goals. It pecks at black specks like a champ, perceives colors–much better than dogs–has 270-degree peripheral vision and emits responses with whiz-bang speed. This gives a trainer the opportunity to squeeze many, many repetitions into a short period, essentially putting the training process on fast-forward.

Chicken speed was nothing new to me. Four years ago, I had taken Bob Bailey’s discrimination workshop, where I learned that the birds respond to the same rules of learning as dogs, dolphins, killer whales, cats, crows, pigs, vultures and the other 150 or so species Bob trained in his 50-year-plus career as an animal trainer They perceive visual cues and quickly learn that a click predicts the food cup will appear and the absence of a click means it will not. Reinforcement builds behavior and when a previously reinforced behavior is no longer reinforced, that behavior will gradually fade away or extinguish. The trainer’s challenge is to click behaviors we want and to freeze when we see behaviors we don’t want.  It’s simple but not easy.

When I met my first white-feathered lady at the recent Bob Bailey-Parvene Farhoody chicken workshop on cueing, I discovered painfully that my chicken training skills had gotten quite rusty. Not only did I click too late, thereby reinforcing a string of unwanted behaviors, but I also had a hard time keeping my body still, sending the bird a supersized message that food was coming. Was my leaning upper body   more obvious to the bird than the target? You bet. My bird even developed a little dance routine with steps and turns before ambling over to peck the target.—all of it trained by me, albeit unwittingly.

Shouting No! or pushing my bird in the desired direction would have handed her a good excuse to fly off the table. As in dog training, punishment would have gotten me nowhere. The only tools that were sure to gain her trust and cooperation were the clicker, a cup of grain and the ability to change something in the training environment.
I give myself a scrap of credit for presenting the cue—a red driveway reflector–more or less in the right place, but my click still came at the wrong time, and now I had a bunch of unwanted behaviors to deal with. Something had to change, and that something was me.

The finished behavior required the bird to peck the target on cue, and turn to walk the length of a banquet table, where I stood with the cup of grain. It then had to wait several seconds—without scratching, wing flapping or beak raking–for the cue to appear again before trotting back to the other end of the table and peck the target. The animal had to do this three times.

Armed with a steely determination to focus, I got to work. First I rehearsed consistent cue presentation without the chicken. Next, at the suggestion of instructor Parvene, I changed the stimulus environment by moving the apparatus holding the target to another part of the table, making it look new and different to the chicken. This eliminated the little dance. Now that I had cue consistency, my chicken pecked the target every time I held up the reflector. All that was left was NOT clicking when the bird looked at the target without the cue. This caused the chicken to give me a tiny, quizzical hesitation as it waited for the reflector to pop up. Lengthening the wait was a piece of cake and soon my bird was walking the length of the table.

“Does any of this have anything to do with dogs?” Bob would ask again and again, drawing a resounding YESSS from my fellow trainers every time. When training our dogs, we must keep our bodies and mouths still, give clear, consistent cues, click the behavior we want with precision timing, keep the rate of reinforcement high and not reward unwanted behavior. If it’s still not working, we don’t blame the dog, but change something and try again. Dogs will usually meet us half-way in our training, but a chicken won’t give you an inch.