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. 

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