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Chicken Clicker Training

Cluck click...

Chicken training workshops have been in existence in America for some years and are considered useful for dog trainers, animal trainers, would be dog trainers and dog enthusiasts. They are a great experience and can help improve mechanical skills. Good timing is everything when training an animal! If you can train a chicken, you can train just about any animal! Julie Love explains why these courses are proving so popular in the UK.

Chickens are less tolerant than dogs. If you get it wrong, they are more likely to walk off in a huff! Most chickens are much faster than the average dog. With no previous relationship to your chicken there will be no 'baggage', history or emotional attachment. 'How to' advice from other people/trainers is unlikely to be forthcoming as very few people in the UK are 'eggspert' chickens trainers! And why mess up your dog whilst you are learning?

Cluck click
Clicker training is about timing and mechanical skills. Clicking at the right moment and delivery of the reward. The clicker is used to communicate to the animal the exact behaviour which earned the reward. Good timing, therefore, is essential to avoid confusion.
Chickens tend to move faster than the average dog. There are no ‘how to’ guides or 'eggperts' in the UK, which means that you won’t have any preconceived ideas, advice or emotional attachments.  And, you won’t mess up your dog whilst you are learning.

When observing students clicker training chickens, it's amazing how silent the trainers are! Why is it that we accept that it's futile giving verbal instructions to a chicken and yet, when training a dog - and they clearly don't understand either - we repeat verbal commands (in English or another language) to them over and over again?  Dogs, as with chickens, weren't born understanding English. It's not even their second, third or twenty-third language, and it never will be! And then sometimes we shout instructions, even though we all know that the dogs' hearing is very acute and much better than ours! Maybe that’s why my best trained dog was born deaf. I know it's pointless repeating verbal cues, so I'm not tempted!

Human concentration levels on the chicken courses are high, too. It is important to remember that handler observation skills and co-ordination are the first requirements. Being able to concentrate and observe means fewer training opportunities are lost, making progress much faster. I also wonder how much of the trainer/handler silence is due to our inability to multi-task. Anyone who saw the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (BBC) about the brain will have seen the demonstration on how humans are extremely poor at multi-tasking, myself included!

Not a yoke!
Students can learn a lot about themselves and their attention span / concentration from a chicken workshop. Knowing your own limits can stop frustration on all sides.

Before you can begin training any animal, you need to set your standard or criteria. What do you want the animal to do?  If you dont do this, it may cause a delay/hesitation in your timing, because a decision has to be made before you click. This may cost you the desired behaviour through not being marked and reinforced correctly. How, where and when the food is delivered also plays a part in the training. The same applies to dogs, whether we are teaching agility, obedience or tricks.

Getting a chicken so focused on what it is doing and helping it to get the correct behaviours with timely reinforcement keeps the bird working with you because it wants to. Trust me, you can't push a chicken around or lure them into something they don't want to do!  And, if you get it wrong they will go off in a huff and more than likely peck you first!  

The key is to avoid frustration which can happen with extinction (getting rid of unwanted behaviours).  To overcome this we use negative punishment. In this way we are also teaching the bird what to do when it gets something wrong. The bird then stays calm and focused instead of getting frustrated.  This can then be used later in further training.  Frustration shouldn't be acceptable or the 'norm' when we are trying to get rid of unwanted behaviour (extinction.) I have applied the same technique to a very difficult rescue dog, and it worked first time, with no relapse (extinction burst) in two months! Training Chickens really does help you to think outside the box.

It is only fair that, if we mark the desired behaviour, we should also mark an incorrect behaviour in a way which can be understood and accepted without the animal losing confidence or feeling told off.  If this principal has been understood early in training, then it is easier to communicate when training more complex tasks such as agility.

When I was first experimenting with the chickens and different breeds a few years ago, we had great fun teaching the chickens agility. They would come running through the tunnel and wouldn't wait for their treat, but would run back around to run through the tunnel again! Once you know how to train them, the sky's the limit what you can teach.

On the training workshops, students get to know their chickens, an important part of any animal training. Each student is allocated two or three chickens to work with. Different breeds are used as their characters are very varied and we also try to have a selection of baby chicks to handle and observe, giving a more rounded learning experience for participants. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the bird the more 'flighty' - and quicker – it is, rather similar to dogs!

Course 1
Initially we teach the chickens simple things - to discriminate between colours or shapes, for example.  Say we want the chicken to only peck red squares and reward her for pecking the red square, then we present different coloured squares and the chicken must only peck the red one.  Remember, it is the trainers skills that we are training in this, and it isn't easy! From there we may teach the chicken to weave around cones and in a certain direction. Before all this the chickens have to be taught to be 'people friendly' and stay on the table without flying off!  Then we teach that 'click' means they got something right and a treat will follow, in the same way as we do dogs. 

Course 2
After discrimination and weave training we teach 'cueing' , so that they only perform behaviours on cue, when we want them to. 

Course 3
Then we begin to teach agility or tricks, like flipping balls, or to play skittles, etc.  For agility we teach the weave poles and tunnel first. We also use targeting. 

More advanced courses include cueing and chaining for agility.

When I was first experimenting with the chickens and different breeds a few years ago, we had great fun teaching the chickens agility. They would come running through the tunnel and wouldn't wait for their treat, but would run back around to run through the tunnel again!

Our chickens don't tend to leave their table or be distracted by noise, other chickens or people walking past. If we can do that with chickens, just think how good it would be if all agility dogs stayed in the ring?  It could also mean that more dogs could enjoy the sport!

Although the course is very much hands on, we walk you through the science of learning theory. We apply the methods throughout the day in practical training, much easier than text books, for those wishing to further their knowledge! We are pleased to say that to date all our chickens and handlers have graduated on each course. We include plenty of breaks and cake to boost sugar levels! A sense of humour is definitely required!

Teaching agility to dogs requires motivating and communicating with them, with good timing, and sometimes from a distance. Through chicken clicker training, these skills can be developed and enhanced. We also use targeting and shaping with the chickens which are very useful tools for teaching agility to dogs. You will pick up skills for your toolbox for problem solving in agility and life skills. Once you know how to train them, the sky's the limit what you can teach.

And remember, if you can train a chicken, you can train just about any animal!

Happy clicking.

For more information and videos on Chicken Clicker Training Workshops, please visit – http://www.bobbytails.org.uk/WORKSHOPS/

About the author...
Julie Love
has owned and trained dogs for more than 40 years.  Her very first dog was an English Springer Spaniel. She has worked with rescue organisations for more than 30 years and during the last 12 years has began to study behaviour more formally. She often takes rescue dogs for assessment in her home and has been known to keep dogs difficult to rehome due to diabetes, deafness and behavioural issues, for example.

Julie became hooked on agility after a cottage holiday in Devon with Nick and Gill Chettle in the 90s. 

She now runs three training schools where she teaches life skills for puppies and dogs, KC Good Citizens classes,  Agility, Rally, Treiball and Barrel Racing, and holds regular workshops on Rally, Detection Scentwork and Chicken Clicker Training. She even admits that before she could begin chicken training, she had to de-sensitise herself to chickens as she really didn't want to pick them up to begin with!

For the last couple of years Julie has presented workshops for other trainers upon request.

First published 2 April 2012