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!
 Brownie

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.

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