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. 

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