YOU WANT ME TO TRAIN WHAT?!! By Cheryl S. Smith
Dog trainers interested in improving their skills attend workshops and camps where the training subjects wear feathers rather than fur, and really don’t care if you tell them they’re good. Welcome to the world of chicken training.
All right, I can hear you snickering. Most people react that way. But the giggling quickly stops when trainers are confronted with a live chicken and a training objective. You can’t put a choke chain on a chicken. You can’t push a chicken into a sit or punish it for not staying. You have to learn to use operant conditioning, or what is popularly known as clicker training.
Bob Bailey, who has been using operant conditioning to train all kinds of animals to do all sorts of things for more years than anyone, runs “chicken camp,” more formally Bailey and Bailey Operant Conditioning Workshops, every summer in Arkansas. (The other Bailey—Marian— passed away in 2001, but her name remains in the workshops in deference to her many years of work in operant conditioning.)
One of Bob’s favorite sayings is that “training is a mechanical skill,” and the description of the workshops explains how that brings chickens into the picture.
”Chickens are simple birds, but they are cautious and not stupid. The chicken’s very simplicity makes it an ideal model for teaching students the skills needed to shape behavior. The chicken seems dedicated to eating, avoiding being eaten, and reproducing, with very few diversions. This simplicity offers clarity when shaping behavior. In addition, the chicken moves quickly, faster than most animals. It takes a quick and observant trainer to time a clicker correctly to coincide with desired behavior.”
Some of you are undoubtedly still skeptical. I’ve heard most of the arguments, and I’m sure Bob has heard them all—training chickens doesn’t have anything to do with training dogs; I’ve already clicker trained my dogs and he learned just fine; my way works, so why change; and on and on. Well, folks, I’ve been clicker training for quite a few years now, and even wrote a how-to book about it, but I’m going to Arkansas chicken camp this summer because when you really learn how to use this technique, the results are wildly exhilarating. You want to get out there and train, and your dog wants to get out there with you.
One more paragraph of explanation from Bailey. “Many animal trainers express the opinion that training a particular kind of animal can be taught only by training that one animal species. However, for teaching the basic principles of operant conditioning and developing training skills, it is far better and faster to work with a simpler subject, one with few genetic behavioral predispositions. Mistakes produce their effects quickly in a chicken. A dog, a dolphin, or a chimpanzee, because of generally higher intelligence, may eventually learn what is wanted regardless of the skill demonstrated by the trainer. Thus, in spite of a trainer’s failure to select the proper behavioral criteria and to reinforce at the proper time, higher animals will eventually ‘get it,’ although perhaps slowly and imperfectly. A chicken, under the same circumstances, would simply appear not to learn, or the behavior would be so slow in coming that it would be painfully obvious that there was a problem of trainer technique.”
The chickens at Legacy Camp are actually ‘rescue’ chickens, freed from a battery chicken raising operation. They live out their lives with Bob, who knows them all by number. He was happy that one chicken with a form of cancer was in remission and feeling well. In training, you can only click and give them food, never manhandle them, and I think they enjoy the game. When Bob travels with them, he spends a small fortune on ice to keep the chicken travel van cool. They may not be wandering free range, but overall I think they lead a pretty good life.
The campers first learn how to handle their feed cups with clickers attached to the handles, without spilling chicken feed everywhere (that mechanical skill, you know). Then they use something the chicken offers a lot, pecking, to shape the bird to peck a spool of a particular color. They have to train well enough that the chicken will stand without pecking if spools of other colors, but not the target, are on the table. Clicking late while training means the chicken will often grab the spool and throw it off the table, making sessions difficult for the trainer’s partner, who has to continually scramble to retrieve the spool.
Campers are dismayed to then be told too switch to a spool of a different color, but it’s a valuable training exercise. Selecting criteria so the chicken earns enough rewards to stay involved, while extinguishing a trained behavior, requires forethought and excellent timing. The trainers who pass this challenge go on to other behaviors, such as pulling a rubber band.
Because I was also instructing at least year’s Legacy Training and Behavior camp, where Bob was presenting the chicken training component, and couldn’t coordinate with a training partner, and because it was my third camp, I worked alone with a chicken and a mini agility course that Bob had brought. Heeding Bob’s advice to click for movement (while the chicken is in the act of performing the action you want) and feed for position (presenting the feed cup where it will lead to the next step in your desired behavior), I trained my chicken to perform the weave poles with a total training time of less than an hour, and almost had the behavior on cue (the cue being a red start cone—if the cone was up, the chicken ran the poles, if not the chicken just stood there.)
Skeptical that this can really translate to dog training? After camp, I took my technique for training my chicken to weave home to my dog, who was just starting to work with the weave poles, and was every bit as successful. Nestle started working six poles in two brief sessions, and twelve poles in another two sessions. Now we just have to work on diversity—finding the correct entrance from any angle, handling on either side. In case you might not know, the weave poles are the single most feared obstacle in agility. Handlers have used wires around the poles, poles that angle out to form a “V,” channel poles that form two lines, and they still have anxiety attacks over the weave poles. We never broke a sweat in training, and we don’t expect any problems in competition.
So train a chicken—your dog will thank you for it.
More information on Bailey and Bailey workshops can be found at www.hsnp.com/behavior. More information on Legacy events can be found at www.legacycanine.com.
Cheryl S. Smith is a long-time trainer, competitor, and writer. Her book, “Quick Clicks: 40 Fast and Fun Behaviors to Train with a Clicker,” is a primer on clicker training, written with instructor Mandy Book. Her latest book, “Dog-Friendly Gardens, Garden-Friendly Dogs,” is available now. Her website is www.writedog.com
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