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.

A Blog Post

Should You Leash Your Dog In Public Parks?

It’s a Norman Rockwell kind of Sunday morning in the fall – bright and cool, and perfect dog-walking weather. I’m out with my 11-month-old German Shepherd puppy in Little Falls Park in Bethesda, Md., which his dog heaven in every respect. Narrow trails snake through a patch of woods along a shallow creek and thoughtful dog owners have stuffed bunches of plastic bags into the uprights of the trash barrels,. But there are also signs reminding everyone to keep their dogs leashed. I chose the park to expose Inka to bikers, jogging groups, baby strollers and other dogs as part of her ongoing socialization to the big world.  Inka is curious, energetic and enthusiastically friendly to people (read, she jumps up) and is wearing a head collar and a six-foot leash.  I want all encounters to be pleasant and fun, but most of all, I want to keep her under my control and safe.  I also want to keep her legal.

Early-morning strollers are few this day. We pass an older couple deep in conversation as their small black terrier toddles along on a bright red leash.  Inka yips and dances around a little as we approach, but I encourage her to move along.  Then I see trouble up ahead:  three dogs off-leash dashing in wide circles around three adults and two elementary school-age children, all of whom are standing still and chatting, oblivious to the dogs.  A light-brown mixed-breed youngster weighing about 40 pounds makes a beeline for Inka, barking as he approaches.  Luckily, his owner is on the ball and runs up to snag his collar, saying she’s sorry but he’s a puppy and doesn’t know any better as she leads him away.  A black Labrador type with a graying muzzle keeps his distance, and the third dog, who looked much larger than the other two, has disappeared into the underbrush. So far so good, but there’s more.

On the way back, I see the same three dogs again, still off-leash, but this time the humans are about 20 feet off the trail on the banks of Little Falls Creek, and the three dogs are splashing in the shallow water. I speed up a little, hoping to pass by without incident, but in a split-second, an 80-pound Boxer, the underbrush dog, is in Inka’s face.  I stop, not wanting to invite a chase.  At that instant – and it was terrifying – I hear a roaring snarl and see a flash of white teeth as the Boxer lunges for Inka’s neck. I yell, “Get your dog” and try to pull Inka’s head  out of the Boxer’s reach.  He backs off, and I hear a little girl’s voice saying, “Sorry, he belongs to our cousin from out of town, and he’s not trained.”  Feeling lucky that the Boxer’s teeth hadn’t connected, we started toward the footbridge.

The Boxer came after us again as we crossed the bridge, but this time I was prepared to kick him out of the way. I didn’t have to, as the owner, a 40-something guy looking sheepish, took a few steps toward his dog and called him off but did not leash him or take his collar.

Bottom line:  Inka wasn’t hurt, although it took her at least 10 minutes to stop bouncing around and looking behind us, and it took just as long for my heart to stop pounding. Who knows what the Boxer was up to, most likely just posturing to scare us off, but his actions had a huge punishing effect on me and likely will make me think twice about returning to the park. Inka is a confident puppy and may not form a long-term dislike of Boxers or generalize to all loose dogs, but the jury is still out.

Should you leash your dog in a public park?   Well, it depends.
1. Do you have a recall that is so solid you’d bet big money on your dog’s responding to it instantly even away from squirrels, joggers, children, cats and other dogs?
2. Does your dog respond instantly and at any distance to your cue to sit, down or stay with the same distractions?
3. Do you scan your surroundings and call your dog to you and leash him when you see a person, jogger or other dog in the distance and hold on to him until the distraction has passed?
4. Do you keep an eye on your off-leash dog at all times, so that you can call him before he threatens or unwittingly scares someone?  Even people who love dogs, like me, don’t want off-leash dogs running up to my dog, no matter how friendly the owner claims they are.  And then there are the people who don’t like dogs or are afraid of them or allergic.  They are also tax-paying citizens who should be able to enjoy the park.

If you can answer YES to the first two questions, your dog has earned his freedom to run off-leash in a place where the behavior is permitted.  But if you’re in a park where it’s illegal to let your dog run free, you run the risk of having your dog labeled dangerous, even if he only caused a person to feel threatened.  If that person files a complaint, you might have to go to animal court and pay a large fine or, in some jurisdictions that have breed restrictions, risk losing your dog.

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