Last saturday, I trained chickens. No, actually, chickens trained me - I didn't teach them anything. I had read articles by Marion Breland Bailey about training chickens and I had talked to friends who had been to Chicken Camp and I have friends who are really excited about the chickens they were training, but that didn't prepare me for actually training chickens.
I am fortunate to have found a group of professional and amateur clicker trainers in my area in Oregon who organize training events and get together to practice and learn. This fall we are putting together an all-day clicker training event where we are planning to use chickens for hands-on practice.
Chickens (supposedly) have the advantage of being very quick in their movements and therefore you get a lot of opportunities for reinforcement in a short period of time. And, because they move so fast, you have to have really good timing with your clicker - you actually have to anticipate your click because if you wait until you see the behavior, by the time the signal reaches your hand to click, the chicken is already doing something else. A chicken can peck a half a dozen times at something before you can click for the first one. Hey, I can do that - I can anticipate the bevavior and start my click so that it happens coincident with the behavior - or not!
Chickens are not dogs - or even parrots! Parrots are quick to pick things up, but the macaws I work with are slow in their movements. Charging a clicker with parrots sometimes takes 5 or 10 clicks. With a puppy, it might take 8 - 20 clicks. With a chicken it takes AT MINIMUM 50 clicks - maybe 150 just to get the chicken to associate the click with the reinforcer. I can usually get a puppy to sit on cue within a few minutes: the same with "watch me" or "come" - in a half hour, we can get somewhere. I can usually get a parrot targeting in a few minutes: sometimes targeting the beak to one target and the foot to a different target - in just a few short sessions. Not a chicken! I worked for an hour with one chicken and didn't get targeting. I don't think I even got the chicken to understand the clicker.
That is another "advantage" of working with chickens - long attention span: as long as there is food available, they will keep working. You don't have to worry about the chicken getting tired of training after 5 minutes!
The real advantage though is that you get to practice precision. Your timing has to be really precise. Your observation skills have to be really sharp. Your ability to recognize very small approximations has to be really good. I will train a chicken! Or more accuractely, I will be trained by working with a chicken. But right now, I just want someone to bring me their new golden doodle puppy and ask me to help them learn how to train him - I want a vacation from chickens. I need my chicken to let me work in short sessions and to end me on a high note. I really need my chicken to give me some kind of positive reinforcement!
If nothing else, I will pay more attention to quit my sessions with other animals while they are still having fun.