Category Archives: ALTERNATE SPECIES

Training alternate species

For years training alternate species to dogs (and horses) has been on my list of things to do. Ages ago I was consulting a mentor about whether or not to go to Chicken Camp and she said that she went years ago and that “…honestly, you’re not going to learn anything much you don’t already know”. Since it costs a pretty penny, I rationalized with myself that just about anyone with chickens would be more than willing to let me mess around with training them (and probably ask if they could video, thinking that it’d be full of good laughs). I also thought about doing the Karen Pryor training academy program which involves training an alternate species…and I thought a hedgehog would be someone interesting to bring into the family. However, I have ethical issues with getting an animal just for sake of the class, and would not temporarily use an animal, that animal would have to become my permanent pet. And, to be honest, I don’t want too many pets. That’s a big reason why I train other people’s dogs for a living…to practice training without becoming the doglady with 10 dogs and piles of poop and fur everywhere.

Now just about everybody else who’s attended the chicken camp sings praises for it, so don’t be deterred in going after that program. And, if you are new to operant conditioning, KPA has a lot to offer (though it is a business and don’t let them convince you that she’s the brains behind marker training). But, above all, make sure you train more than your own best friend. Long ago, back when horseback riding was my pursuit, it was apparent that different horses are drastically different to ride and train. What’s right for one is possibly totally wrong for another. Training a species with such a different perspective of the world than your dog is invaluable. Getting the timing and reward placement and other details correct is the only way you can achieve with an animal that won’t “rescue” you and make up for your errors.

Years ago I had the chance to work with someone’s chickens (check out Pecking Order). More recently, I got a few ducks. The logistics of separating ducks is touchier because ducks are much more socially connected and tend to panic when they are apart from their flock.  I have a plan to set up stations where each duck will get rewarded for maintaining their station while the working duck gets rewarded for the behavior we’re working on. But, the whole set up requires some time to get feeding tubes or some such set up with platforms that the ducks can stand on (they actually slip on a lot of surfaces, like a chunk of bare wood). With my most cherished learner, my toddler, soaking up the majority of my time, the ducks have been on the back burner. But they have a lovely recall to the word “Come on”…which, incidentally, my toddler believes is what they and other fowl are called :D!

Want to see a trained fish? Here’s a clip of a father son team that did a brilliant job:


Pecking Order

Training chickens was on my bucket list, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to house sit for a couple of weeks where these lovely ladies resided:

Della Della was careful and a little shySlinkySlinky, the most keen, quickly realized there were goods on offer and tried to help herself.PepperPepper, boss-lady, looks to avoid trouble yet causes it!

And Brownie, my favorite, the 1st to figure out how to work the system.

Going into this there were many other priorities (you know, life responsibilities and whatnot) and it was actually only after a few days into my stay that I realized the opportunity to train an alternate species was before me. So, my first collection of training sessions where not half as efficient as they could have been. I was just feeling them out and beginning with creating a positive association with me and my ladle. Yes, ladle. At first I had to figure out how to deliver worms (I’m squeamish), and I thought setting it in a ladle would give the chickens a little buffer of distance, easing them into being comfortable near me, while keeping my hands off of those worms. Well, the ladle was kind of a joke. Not a terrible idea, but very clumsy and slow.

I should probably mention I know pretty much nothing about chickens, so these early stages were mostly an examination of chicken behavior. What kind of things does a chicken want, how does a chicken view the world, etc.

So we begin. Fascinatingly, the first chickens to arrive for “worm ala ladle” had such an advantage over the 3 and 4th to arrive. The 4th was unable to overcome suspicion (can you guess who that was?), and it was hard to try to get food to late-comers without the first 2 running in and scooping up the offer. And, comically, when a chicken would peck a worm, it would turn into dried worm shrapnel…which was initially useful as the other it attracted more chickens to the area. I had to shift my focus from not touching the worms to trying to control the “reward grenade”.  It was a start, and I had a slight concern that I may turn these chickens into hounds that heel and beg and peck at me every time I’m in the yard.

Next up, I had to figure out better mechanics. In chicken camp, they use a measuring cup full of feed with a clicker attached to it. Unsure of how out-of-control things might get, I found a little lid to put over the top of a measuring cup (in chicken camp the chickens are isolated on tables and the trainer holds the cup to their chest/covers it with a hand and it’s hard for the chicken to steal more). In my situation, my chickens are on the ground and free, so I opted for a lid. The lid worked fine, was somewhat unnecessary (I could always have covered it with a hand or lifted it up out of reach (a strategy that I think is counterproductive with dogs)), and I had bigger problems.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that they rather get “paid” in hundreds than pennies. I filled the measuring cup with cracked corn, their staple diet. They thought it was alright, and even let me click a clicker before courageously pecking at the cup, but I also brought out a higher value reinforcement: worms. Those were locked up in a plastic container, and when one did something exceptional, I fished out a worm to reward. Suddenly these chickens started learning what I was not trying to teach them, and a good lesson for me to work through because the same thing happens with dogs: they refused the cracked corn. Cracked corn was maybe a number 2 on their value scale, and worms are most likely a 10. Here’s where trainers would go different directions in response. Susan Garrett is all about working through “Don’t wanna, don’t hafta” moments. She is adamant about dogs being able to switch back and forth between rewards, from food to toys and back, between different values, switching from this toy to another and back to the 1st toy, etc. The dog is supposed to take what’s on offer, not refuse and pout and train the trainer to “pay” with better rewards.  I’m on board with some of this philosophy, but these chickens haven’t yet developed any sort of work ethic, and adding more challenges (and difficult ones, at that) was premature. So, at this stage, and since I never found half as much time and energy as I would have liked to work with these gals, I decided to just avoid giving them that choice. I still brought both rewards out with me to the training area…just in case I wanted some flexibility. But, the bottom line is I needed to build more value for “trying things”, so I used the highest value reinforcer to start their training “career”. Had I worked with them longer, this would be very interesting to examine.

Next up, it became apparent that these chickens now needed to be separated for training. Observing the rank among them, it took me a minute to realize, duh, there’s a pecking order here. I never would dream of working multiple beginner dogs at the same time, their social concerns at best dilute, at worst eliminate, learning (or teach something unwanted instead). I tried to manage it, by using a stick to create space between the chickens, block a pushy one while feeding another, but, as you may have guessed, these chickens don’t really give a care about what I want in this regard. It was slipping out of control while Slinky attempted to jump up and grab the rewards, Pepper was bullying her way forward at the last minute, just when I was about to deliver the worm to the correct chicken, so I finally got organized and figured out good mechanics/setup for my little experiment.

Setting up a chicken

Operant conditioning could be looked at as a set up.  Without sounding like I was trying to trick these chickens, I was trying to set up the scene to capitalize on what a chicken would possibly choose to do.

First I had to separate the chickens, so that they could notice what I set out rather than be distracted by safety concerns (like pecking order). I let them choose, of their own volition, to enter a small fenced area with a gate/door. I set up a big x-pen and put in a low stool (a must for training long periods in order to save your back and posture), a target (a square of wood), my training treats (covered in a container), a clicker and positioned myself inside, seated, treats in hand, and waited. The chickens did not disappoint and every one of them wandered in (for which they were generously paid). As soon as one would step in the gate, I’d slowly close the gate behind her, and if 2 came in I’d wait until one left (I may have resorted to luring one out…but never in.

Let me back up one quick sec and talk about what I decided to train these chickens to do aside from walking into the training area. The very first task was to condition a marker. I also took every opportunity with an individual chicken to say her name before doling out rewards. The 1st step to training an animal to come when called is to create value for the recall word. This is a process that takes time (and a relationship with the animal) to build and 2 weeks is an unrealistic time to achieve something like a complete recall, but, I figured, so long as I’m doling out rewards for just standing there, might as well get more bang for my buck and add associating their name to the reinforcement. The other training goal I decided on was a targeting behavior. Targeting is easy, and shaping pecking was far too easy. So my goal was for the chickens to stand on the target, not to scratch at it (scratching is also much easier).

The chickens were all at varying degrees of comfort and understanding about me and this whole “do something and get worms” thing. Beyond that and a good setup, it’s a waiting and good reflexes game. I made another huge error and I left the dogs loose to run around outside the pen. Mostly they were on long settle command, but it wasn’t just my own dogs and not everybody could heed voice commands, and I didn’t want to break off chicken training to reposition a dog. And it only takes a little safety concern of a dog wandering by too close to detrimentally break the rhythm of a training session. Then it became a much longer waiting game. I should have lowered my criteria and developed the concepts of “your behavior has consequences”…meaning let the chickens learn that they could do things to get the click to happen (and the click always gets “paid”). 

On something like my 2nd attempt at working with the chickens I had a major success back when they were all still in a big group. Brownie actually figured out to seek out the target, which I had lying on the ground with no real hopes for it but if a chicken wandered over it I’d jackpot. Well, she did more than just wander over it! She was able to learn not only to seek it out and touch it with her feet, but to also stand on it rather than scratch at it. It was almost just luck, although I did capture and select as best I could, and achieved much, much greater results than could be expected. I was not surprised that she couldn’t easily reproduce these results on subsequent tries. That’s a lesson in fluency. Although she was successfully doing the behavior, she didn’t really “know” the behavior, and I didn’t kid myself about it either. But she did “get it” for that session.

It was really fun to think like a chicken and work through some training challenges. I eventually switched to using tweezers to deliver worms. Though they still exploded on impact, that was kind of fun for everyone. Since the treat-delivering utensils were clumsy I had to verbally mark a lot in order to capture the right moment. They picked up the verbal marker. I had varying levels of success. Since I wasn’t willing to invest more time, the chickens who took more time to learn to offer behavior were shaped to peck the target. I had varying degrees of success with the target/stand on mark behavior. Most of my setbacks were little things like a chicken got brushed by the fence, or a chicken outside pressured a chicken inside for the treat. The chickens would also worry when I shifted around over the top of them to close the gate. If a dog barked or wandered by and stuck his nose in the fence the chicken would lose focus on my goals. While Slinky and Brownie both were offering foot targeting behaviors, but, it would take a bit more time to select out for a very strong stand on the mark along with seeking out the target in various locations (generalizing).  

I gained a lot of experience learning how chickens “are” and understanding some of the logistics to plan for. Next time around I should be able to construct a more effective training plan to achieve even more in the time we have to work together. If you haven’t read the first post of this story, read about how the pecking order impacted my approach, or check out this cool alternate species conversation.