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 and crazy hair ;P

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, Karen Pryor will have you logging yourself to expert level, so don’t let my choice influence your decisions. 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 to ride. What’s right for one is possibly totally wrong for another of the same species. Moving on to train alternate species with such a different perspective of the world 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.

I was fortunate enough this summer to get my hands on some chickens. Read about that under the title: Pecking Order (coming soon)

Here’s a brilliant clip of a father son team that trained a surprising alternate species:


Pecking Order

Training chickens holds a spot 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, she’s no nonsense, looking to avoid trouble, and causing 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 by 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 useful as the other it attracted more chicken interest to the area, and I started 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 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 the 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 rather train the dog so that the trainer can hold food in both hands at the ready to reward as immediately as possible following the behavior)), 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 took an age fishing 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 the next to the next and back. 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 in this situation I haven’t 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 putting them into 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 a very interesting component 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. Remember Tom and Jerry and other cartoons that would lay out all these setups where the cat or dog would offer behavior that would get them trapped? Without sounding like I was trying to trick these chickens, what I needed to do was lay out the scene so that to be able to capitalize on what a chicken would possibly choose to do, being ready to reinforce as immediately as possible. It’s important to reward asap, because, although the clicker (or whatever marker you’re using) allows one to bridge the gap from the moment a behavior occurs to the instant you can deliver reinforcement, it just doesn’t work as well if you take too long, especially for subjects just beginning to learn how to learn.

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 (there’s only so much time in a day and training entering the pen was not high on my list)).

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 (both verbal and a clicker), but, even more intently, I 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 relationship 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 more serious 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 interrupt a training session. Then it became a much longer waiting game, during which time I said to myself, “I know the next steps to take, do I really have enough time to work through those pieces?” Since my project list was chock full, I had to sadly limit the time I could dedicate to these feathery friends.

Now, I didn’t tell you about a major success I had on something like my 2nd attempt at working with the chickens, 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, and it only takes a few of those sessions for you to be able to ramp up the difficulty level. Someone calls this moment “the decision point”, I love this moment and require it (and seek to achieve it early on with a new behavior) but I’d call it comprehension, or simply, “getting it”. After that comes locking it in and expanding on the criteria until you achieve your terminal version of the behavior…that perfect execution. Then naming and then proofing, generalizing, and so forth. All of that takes a considerable investment of time, and I rather dedicate that love and care to my dogs (and my clients’ dogs). 

It was really fun to think like a chicken and figure out solve some training challenges. I eventually switched to using tweezers to deliver worms, they still exploded on impact, but 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, and they picked up on that. 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 logistical failure…if a chicken got brushed by the fence, or a chicken outside pressured a chicken inside for a treat just out of reach, or worry when I shifted around over the top of them to close the gate, or a dog barks or wanders by and sticks his nose in the fence. While Slinky and Brownie both were offering foot targeting behaviors, 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. It was right around the corner but I had agility equipment that needed rubberizing, so, that’s all folks. Sorry there’s not cool video but I can’t bring myself to edit down the video I took. For heaven’s sake, I haven’t even watched all my videos of my live Rally-FrEe competition months ago, so, that’s all for now. 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.