Simple but certainly not stupid

Last Friday, Feb 17th, myself, Caryn of WhattaPup! and Andre of When Hounds Fly drove up to Barrie to train chickens in a much-awaited one-day operant conditioning workshop by Katherine Ferger and her husband Len Silvester at Canine Company. I have long been beating myself for not having attended a chicken camp back home in Finland, where the guru himself, Bob Bailey, came a few years ago to do camps. As soon as I heard that Katherine is doing them up in Barrie the Bob Bailey way, I was determined that I wanna do one.

Why chickens?! The common response we people have is: “but they are so stupid /what on earth can you teach a stupid chicken to do/training chickens has nothing to do with dog training”. I used to be prejudiced as well. But as I learned this weekend, chickens are simple but they certainly are not stupid! Having been a scientist up until recently, I remember mentioning chicken training to some of my former colleagues, and a common response even from an educated scientist was one of doubt and ridicule. Why? Science uses simple models like baker’s yeast and worms to study human¬† disease because the systems are more simple to study but still have the same components as a more elaborate organism has. Do we ridicule this? No we don’t, because without the simple systems our understanding of mammalian biology wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. The exact same principle applies to animal training: chicken is the model organism to study the mechanical skill of training all the animals.

When we train dogs we drag all sorts of emotional garbage into the training session, for example:

  • My dog is not obedient
  • My dog should know this behavior by now
  • My dog knew how to do this yesterday, now he must be feeling depressed
  • My dog is just being stubborn

All of the above is b****hit (excuse my French!) and those statements have absolutely nothing to do with training. This becomes so very obvious when you train chickens: would you ever think that the chicken is pecking the white tablecloth instead of the round red target because the chicken is feeling that you are not a good leader? No way! Emotions or interpretations about the cause or intent of a behavior have nothing to do with animal training. If the animal in training -be it a chicken, rabbit, dog or a horse- is not learning, the only thing that this means is that we are not teaching correctly. Exceptions to this rule are: the animal is sick/ has been severely punished. Once again, the fundamentals are everything. As I already learned in 2002 in my very first clicker training course: training is a mechanical skill and we cannot be good trainers until we master the mechanics.

My personal feelings about chickens as animals:

I had no idea that they live more than 10 years. As soon as we arrived, they started to be really noisy because they were hungry and knew that people coming means training and food. First it felt really scary and weird lifting the chicken in and out of the cage but by the end of the day if was just another routine. They are warm, kind of cuddly and certainly have distinct personalities. What the chicken does on the training table is a pure reflection of our training skills. I was a really bad food spiller, and because of that my chicken pecked the tablecloth a lot. I got what I reinforced. I wonder if I get the same chicken in the next chicken training camp, will the chicken remember me and and be more affectionate?! Will she remember what I taught her? HAH! I’m assigning human emotions to the chicken already (also intentionally in this context!). But isn’t this what we do with dogs all the time. Not to mention what we do when we go and ride horses. It is time to clear the emotional the garbage off the the training area and focus on behavior!

We partnered up in teams of two and while one of us was training (training sessions were from 10 seconds up to 1 minute long) the other one was coaching the trainer. This was such a good setup. Andre and I partnered up and below is movie where I’m shaping my chicken to touch the white dot in the middle of a black target. I spill a lot of food, need more practice…

In the next movie, we are training our chickens to discriminate between a hot target (RED in my case) and cold targets. Here, my chicken doesn’t fully understand the meaning of the hot target yet, I was slow in getting her to touch the red target on its own in the first place:

Lastly, here is my best training session of the day, we’re getting the grasp of the red target:

And very lastly, Katherine is definitely one of those training Yodas that all of us have a lot to learn from!



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