Home » Library » Learn » Shaping and Targeting

Clickin’ Chickens: How Training Chickens Helped Me Become Leader of the Peck

Trust the force

As a life-long fan of sci-fi movies, it brought a smile to my face to hear one of my training heroes say “Trust the force.”

Karen Pryor’s reference to the Star Wars series at ClickerExpo a few years ago was meant as a reminder to stay focused on the principles we learned, even in challenging training situations. In fact, Karen was suggesting that we rely more than ever on the fundamentals when we were impatient or tempted to give up and revert to old habits.

clicking chicken

So, when I found myself surrounded by a flock of novice chickens, straight off a poultry farm, and 20 eager Chicken Camp students, it was comforting and reinforcing to hear Karen’s voice in my head…

[Cue music:] “Trust the force.”

Dogs and cats and chickens!

Students in the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Training Program are required to choose an alternate species, something other than a dog, to work with for several exercises in the program. As a multiple-cat owner for years, I chose to work with one of my cats as my alternate species. Working with Griffin, a somewhat nervous guy, was certainly more challenging than working with my dogs. He rewarded me for my patience, and reinforced me for the good habits of creating specific training plans, setting up a training environment that was conducive to learning success, remaining still and quiet, splitting criteria, and sticking to short sessions. We were successful together and both enjoyed the process and power of clicker training.

But I had lived with Griffin for 10 years and knew him well. Shy as he was, we had a good relationship and spent a lot of time together. He is a member of my family. Wouldn’t it be fun and instructive to apply my clicker training skills to a far greater challenge—a species that isn’t a companion animal?

I had heard of Chicken Camps for years. Though the concept sounded a bit strange back when I first began to train dogs, I had come to understand the appeal of working with a species with which I had absolutely no experience. Of course, everyone has seen chickens, and some people know more about them than I do. But most of us don’t spend time hanging out with them in our homes, or cuddle them while we watch a movie, or invite them into our beds at night, as we do with our companion animals.

Chickens 101

chicken camp

Three Amigos: Janet Velenovsky with Michelle Mullins
(left and right) assisted Terry Ryan in presenting
the first East Coast Chicken Camp
in Virginia in July 2010.

In the Pacific Northwest for business, I was fortunate to have a chance to visit Terry Ryan’s wonderful training center, Legacy Canine, in Sequim, WA. In addition to a brilliantly planned and realized training center, with an agility field and a playground any dog would howl over, Terry’s property includes a first-class chicken compound, including a tidy coop and a fenced yard.

It was there that I had my very first experience handling a chicken. Under Terry’s careful tutelage, I learned how to pick one up to avoid fluttering wings (one thumb over the top of each wing keeps them tucked), how to carry one (there’s the “approach-from-the-front-so-you-can-keep-your-eye-on-the-beak” style, or the “parallel pick-up” that allows you to tuck a chicken under your arm like a football carry), and how to feed chickens so that they only get one peck in a food cup (this requires a steady hand and practice, practice, practice). I was thrilled to learn just enough about chickens to develop a real desire for more.

Another taste of chicken training came from a half-day session at an APDT conference. A short time after that, I had the privilege of assisting Terry as she conducted a one-day Chicken Camp in a corporate office in Knoxville, TN. In each of these situations, I saw people use the same fundamentals of clicker training we use with our dogs to elicit specific behaviors from chickens. Several were first-time clicker trainers!

Trainer novices, chicken novices

After these events, I knew I had to have the full four-day Chicken Camp experience myself. But my travel schedule and workload made it hard to plan another full-week trip across the country to Sequim. I pressed my luck and invited Terry to travel to Virginia to teach a group at the Dude Ranch Pet Resort and Training Center, where I teach classes. To my great delight, she accepted!

And Terry’s acceptance of that invitation leads me back to the scenario of 20 apt students ready to work with a rented flock of novice chickens. I had wanted the Chicken Camp experience for myself, but had also taken on the responsibility of gathering folks together for a group training. We weren’t faced with Terry’s well-socialized chickens, however. Being inside was unique for this flock, let alone being caged individually, put up on tables, and fed from the clicker cup. Would it work?Being inside was unique for this flock, let alone being caged individually, put up on tables, and fed from the clicker cup. Would it work?

“Trust the force.”

Terry’s first-day activities resembled work that new dog owners do to learn about their pets. She led the group through exercises in observation of a chicken’s natural behaviors. We learned about safe chicken handling. We played games with our training partners that honed our clicking and food delivery skills before we interacted with the chickens themselves. Similar to TAGteach™ lessons, these games helped the trainers to practice skills step-by-step, and to get reinforcement for success. We also spent time breaking standard chicken food pellets into tiny pieces so that we could avoid filling up our training subjects too fast. Finally, we were ready to begin shaping behavior in our chickens.

The same, only different: reinforcers, targets, extinction bursts, success!

When you have a hungry chicken on a table in front of you, get it engaged in the process right away! A chicken without purpose might choose to wander away toward the edge of the table, or to flap wings and consider flight. It was essential to use a very high rate of reinforcement to get these girls into the game. The first few clicks and treats were “free,” but soon we began to click and reward for attention to the small target we placed on the tabletop. Any glance, movement, or approach to the target was marked and rewarded with a moment’s access to the measuring cup containing food pellets.

color discrimination

Chicken learning to peck generic target.

As with any subject, we needed a variety of reinforcers. In addition to standard food pellets, we had cracked corn—perhaps the equivalent of high-calorie snack foods for kids—and live mealworms, a true delicacy for chickens. We rotated our primary reinforcers carefully, using higher-value rewards for a chicken that lost interest in our games. As a group, we discussed whether jackpotting a chicken would increase motivation and/or behavior, or whether jackpots were simply rewarding to us when our chicken reached a new level of performance.

We reinforced behavior we wanted, and ignored behavior we did not want. We ended sessions if something went awry or if the chicken seemed to be “stuck” due to some error on our part or a change in the training environment. We talked with our partners to prepare for the next session. We timed ourselves to keep our training sessions short and focused. We raised criteria in small steps. And, guess what? We were successful!

Once our chickens pecked the generic target consistently, we introduced a colored target and rewarded heavily for pecking that “hot” target. Then we added an alternate color, then two, and managed the situation to set our chickens up for success. Teammates moved the targets periodically so that the chicken was closest to the “hot” target, while the new colors were visible but harder to reach and peck.

After several short sessions in that mode, teammates offered the chickens easier access to the non-reward targets. Once a chicken had a sufficient history of pecking the “right (hot)” target, it was time to solidify the desired behavior. We set up a strong possibility for error, purposely removed the “hot” target if the chicken pecked another color. We were then able to watch an extinction burst happen. Finally, we reintroduced the “hot” target and strengthened the pecking behavior on that target with additional clicks and treats.

Yes, “trusting the force” works. Clicker training works.

Lessons learned

I learned several things from this workshop that I might not have in other training venues. I realized that while I liked all the chickens and cared about their well-being, I didn’t feel as close a connection with my chicken as I do with my dogs and cats. There’s a Zen saying I like:

“An archer cannot shoot at two targets at once.”

By separating the art of training from the goal of a ribbon or a qualifying score or another final accomplishment, I was really able to practice the mechanics of clicker training. Working with a new species, one to which I was not emotionally attached, was a freeing experience.Working with a new species, one to which I was not emotionally attached, was a freeing experience. It was easier to simply observe behavior without anthropomorphism; it never occurred to me to think the chicken was being stubborn or was mad at me for something I did previously. Establishing the habit of “staying in the moment” helps improve observation and mechanical clicker skills.

Knowing there’s a limited timeframe and a limited purpose for working with the subject kept me focused on the present. As we clicked the chickens for pecking a target, there were no grand dreams of making it to chicken nationals or earning blue ribbons for the best chicken heeling. We did enjoy sharing our progress and brainstorming ideas for our next turns with our chickens, though!

One of the most important takeaways for me was an appreciation of the usefulness of a training coach. As each of us trained, our coaches supported us by sweeping away spilled feed, observing our timing, handling targets and helping to manage the chicken, and offering feedback. That immediate feedback improved timing, and ideas from coaches’ observations furthered our progress. There was also value in alternating turns, so that each of us could observe our partners and get news ideas during our coaching turn. I tend to be a solitary trainer, but I left the workshop with a desire to incorporate trusted coaches into my training plans.

chicken camp group shot

The entire class with instructor, Terry Ryan, center.
(click here to enlarge)

Moving on

In our last training sessions, we worked on getting our chickens to move. Teams chose either to train the chickens to go through paper tunnels (light poster board rolled into a chicken-sized tunnel) or to weave through plastic cones (tiny versions of the ubiquitous traffic cone). We continued with the same careful planning and criteria setting (starting with a short tunnel or just a couple of cones and increasing difficulty after lots of success at the easier level) and with fundamental clicker training skills to shape new behaviors toward our goals. With the success we had in these movement lessons, perhaps there should be chicken agility competitions!

Our 20 novice chickens and their intrepid trainers underscored Karen’s point about clicker training fundamentals again and again. As we watched chickens traverse tunnels and careen through cones, I smiled. I was thinking, “Yep, this stuff works!”

May the force of clicker training be with you.

About the author
User picture
n/a