top of page

"Chicken Camp?" Training Chickens Can Make You a Better Dog Trainer

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

Me with my little training partner hen.

Terry Ryan, the instructor for Chicken Camps all over the world, was my instructor for the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professionals Course; this is where I got my "KPA CTP" certification/alphabet after my name. Terry is remarkable in every way that I can imagine; in the dog training world, she is a legend. Because of my implicit faith in her, when I graduated from the KPA Professionals course, I asked her what she wanted me to do next along my path to be the best dog trainer I could be. She told me, "Chicken Camp, and don't argue." Does this woman know me?! Argue?! Had anyone else told me to take this course, I would certainly have questioned its value because I don't care about training chickens. But I care about understanding behavioral science; I signed up for the next Chicken Camp. Then COVID hit the country, and lots of things in life were put on hold. Finally, in April 2023, Chicken Camp became a reality for me.

Here is a short bio about Terry:

"Terry Ryan, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP Faculty, President of Legacy Canine, has been a dog training class instructor since 1968. Through Legacy, Terry teaches pet dog classes, writes, presents at national and international seminars and workshops and does consults. Terry has been a domestic and international faculty member of the Karen Pryor Academy since 2008, teaching numerous times a year at locations in Washington and Hawaii. She has been conducting chicken training camps nationally and internationally since 1993 with the intent of helping animal trainers from all disciplines sharpen their skills. Terry has authored over 300 dog training articles, nearly a dozen books and a series of sound desensitization CDs."

Terry teaches Chicken Camps all over the world. Students of her courses include zoo and aquarium personnel, FBI dog handlers, shelter personnel, corporate team building events, conservation workers and service dog groups, kennel clubs, colleges, and even the corporate fishing industry.

In my course, held in Washington, there were nine students. Two of the students were law enforcement officers from Africa who were there with their coordinator in "Dogs For Conservation," based here in the US. This organization trains the dogs they use in their efforts to prevent poaching in Africa. One student, who has become a friend of mine as we attend courses together, is a guide dog trainer in Switzerland. The other students were from Brazil, The Netherlands, Texas, Washington, California - and me, from Oregon. What I learn from the students I attend courses with is often as valuable to me as what the instructor intends to teach.

One of Terry's driving passions is to "teach people how to train their dogs." She invests as much of herself in teaching people how to teach people as she does in teaching behavioral science as it applies to dogs. Every second of this five-day course is a study of how to reach people, how to frame words that can instruct as well as support, and how to create a learning environment of safety. I first learned how to train dogs. In order to pay that forward to others, in any meaningful way, I also have to understand how to teach. In every Zoom session, and in every word I write, I must know how to invite and empower my client or reader. This is of critical importance to me, so when given the opportunity I study every move Terry makes.

Learning from chickens

Way back in the 1930s, B.F. Skinner developed groundbreaking research about operant conditioning using rats and pigeons as his learning subjects. This research changed the understanding of behavioral science forever. So, given this context, a chicken seems a pretty evolved little creature.

In Terry's words:

"We are employing the positive reinforcement part of operant conditioning. Very simply put, the subject learns to behave in a way to obtain "good things.""

In the dog training world, there can still be a lot of leash jerking and intimidation. You can't jerk or intimidate a chicken into complying with the wishes of a human. I don't consider myself a trainer who uses these methods, but you'd be surprised how insidiously these things can sneak their way into the way we deal with animals. I notice this the most when every other tool is taken away from me.

If I provide an animal with enough information about how he can earn reinforcement for a behavior I want, he will be successful. If I do not provide enough information, he will not be. End of story. People training dogs often bring out a leash, so that the dog will stay with them and participate in a training session. Why not just make it reinforcing enough for the dog that he chooses to stay and participate?

Many people who own dogs seem to feel the dog owes them something, that the dog should want to please them. Why? Behavioral science says that isn't so, and if you don't believe that, try convincing a chicken he should care how you feel. To me, this kind of training seems so "clean," so simple, and so fair and realistic. I have found it liberating. In my work with LGDs, I seldom reach for a leash anymore because I feel that if I need that leash to keep the dog with me, it shows an inadequacy in how I am communicating with my dog; I use leashes to keep dogs safe but not as tools of instruction. I learned about "string training" from Steve Martin at NEI in Florida. This uses a history of reinforcement from me with my learner that leads him to choose to work with me. This is, in Steve's words, an example of "the artful application of scientific principles." I'll take that over the use of a leash any day.

"String Training" - Building a Connection Between the Trainer and the Learner:

Examples of what I learned:

Reinforce early, not late. This is especially important when teaching complex behaviors. Click as the behavior begins to happen, not when it has happened. When teaching a dog to sit, you click as the dog begins to lower his behind to the ground not when the behind touches the ground.

Don’t assume you know what the extraneous variables are to which the chicken or dog may be responding. Chickens don't miss a thing. Every aspect of their environment influences their behavior. This is true of dogs too but is often overlooked. Dogs may be labeled as "stubborn" or independent. A chicken works for reinforcement, period. If the environment is more reinforcing than what a trainer has to offer the chicken emotionally disconnects from the training session or simply flies away.

If you suddenly are not getting target behavior, the animal may need to rest, may be full, or there may be some other physiological issue.

Don’t over-prompt by physically trying to move the chicken or by “luring” or “baiting” the chicken to do the task. Reinforcing successful approximations is much more successful because the animal learns the behavior, not just how to follow a reinforcer.

If the chicken is making repeated errors, the skill is too high and/or the reinforcement is too low. Giving the chicken enough information that he can be successful is my job, as it is with dogs. Not doing so can create frustration in dogs and can damage their relationship with me. Chickens experience frustration, but unlike dogs, they can just leave.

The logistics of our chicken training

Each of us was assigned our own chicken for the five days of the course. We worked in pairs, randomly selected by Terry, and changed halfway through the course. Ever the trainer of people, she stretched us rather than allowing us to comfortably learn from a new friend. The chickens were housed in cages in our training room. The partner's job was to bring the chicken from the cage for the trainer of that chicken. The partner's job was also to pick up the chicken when asked; this was done to physically reset the chicken to improve the likelihood of success.

The tunnel

This short video clip shows part of teaching my chicken to walk through this tunnel. This was quite a lesson for me. The first behavior we taught the birds was to peck a target; we used a poker chip. Notice that there is a knot in the wood at the entrance to my tunnel. My chicken would enter the tunnel and stop at this knot. I wanted her to walk all the way through. I noticed the knot and changed the direction of the tunnel so that she would walk all the way through. What turned out to be true is that the knot served as a prompt for her, a target for the entrance to the tunnel. I thought she had become proficient in understanding to walk through the tunnel. Without the knot there, she stopped consistently orienting to the entrance to the tunnel. Note to self! Don't assume things not yet proven!

Roll the dice!

This is the last behavior I "attempted" to teach my chicken. I say this because I had less than two minutes to work with her with this behavior and then it was time to wrap things up and go home.

My goal behavior was for her to peck the dice so that they fell off the table.

The time I spent watching my hen try to figure this out seemed so long in real time! I felt mean for waiting for her to puzzle through this. I wanted to see if I could shape the behavior, so by necessity I had to wait for her to move, to offer me behavior that showed progress toward my finished goal behavior. That proved to be too much to ask - or showed that I didn't have the training skills necessary to make sense to her - so I switched to prompting her a couple of times.

It's almost silly how excited I felt when she walked over and knocked the dice to the floor!

In watching her through this training session, I felt she showed some frustration. I've already stated that chickens don't care about how people feel, so why did she stay? Why didn't she just hop down and go on an adventure of her own?

Reinforcement history

Over the five days of the course, I worked with this chicken maybe thirty times. All the sessions were less than a minute long; most were less than thirty seconds long. During this time she learned some generalized behavior that made it easier for me to teach her new things. She had never seen dice before this video. But this is what she did seem sure of, based on the consistency of her behavior:

She learned that the surface of the table was a target; reinforcement frequently showed up there and not anywhere else in the room.

She learned that movement produced reinforcement; standing still did not.

She learned that movement of her beak got her paid, but not her feet, and that she had to touch something with her beak. So, she learned to keep her head down and look at things on the table. This helped to keep her on the table because having her head down is an incompatible behavior with flying away.

Developing a reinforcement history with an area is an interesting concept. At NEI, when I taught my Macaw to fly through the hoop of two people's arms, I had to create a reinforcement history for him with the air - with his flight path. I back-chained the behavior, meaning that I created the most reinforcement history with the end of the behavior.

I started by paying him while he was on his perch. Then, I had him fly from my hand to the perch from about a foot away, and I paid him on the perch. Then from two feet away, and four feet away; finally from ten feet away. He knew to fly through the arms of the people, rather than chose some different path back to the perch, because there was reinforcement history in the air between the arms of the humans. Fascinating.

Being Trained by Rufio – My Natural Encounters Adventure:

Now, let's apply this to LGDs. This concept is part of why LGDs learn to guard resources, such as water troughs, their food bowls even when they are empty, and other areas where they have had an experience they found reinforcing. I use this principle in my training at the ranch to create joyful places for my dogs. Then, I can use giving them access to these areas they have become conditioned to value as a secondary reinforcer for another behavior. Other examples of secondary (learned) reinforcers are a human's voice and touch. With LGDs, I look for ways to use the environment they live in as part of my reinforcers because the environment is always valuable to LGDs; it is there even when I am not. It is often more reinforcing for an LGD to offer him access to prime real estate than it is for me to offer him a food reinforcer.

What I learned at chicken camp

I learned that my timing could use some improvement. In shaping my chicken, sometimes I watched for her to just glance in the direction I ultimately wanted her to go, but my clicks were slow. Sometimes, by the time I had clicked, she had begun to look in a different direction, so my click marked where her head was then, not when it was where I wanted her to go. So now, not only does she not know where I want her to go I also have to clean up her confusion about where she thought I wanted her to go, based on the timing of my click. I don't have to be this precise and fast with LGDs, so my skills are a little rusty. When I used to train with my mini schnauzer during my Karen Pryor Professionals course, I absolutely had to be this fast. That girl is a rocket!

I learned more about using extinction in my training. That isn't very comfortable for me. Extinction is what an animal experiences when he does a behavior that has been reinforced in the past - and this time, it isn't. Think about putting coins in a machine to get a soda. How frustrating when it doesn't work!

In shaping, reinforcing successive approximations of the goal behavior are how the complex goal behavior is created. This is done by incrementally raising the criteria the animal has to do to be reinforced; so, the thing he was paid for just a second ago he no longer gets paid for. This can really be experienced as punishing and aversive by an animal, but a little bit of it is necessary to prompt the animal to offer more behavior in the hope of landing on what will get him paid this time. With dogs, there can be a very fine line between creating challenging training opportunities or frustrating situations. When I make mistakes like this with dogs, it can hurt my relationship with them; a chicken just leaves. If I bring her back, and I reinforce her, she will stay, and our training continues. So, practicing on a less fragile psyche can save the dogs in my life a little stress. I use shaping every day of my life with my dogs, so this is a skill I strive to become very good at.

I was reminded of how valuable it is to teach an animal to target some part of his body to something physical. Here on my ranch, I can move my dogs simply by moving my hand. If I wriggle my fingers in front of a dog's nose, he will follow that target. I can use this to move him alongside me (loose leash walking) or through a population of animals. I can show a dog my hand, and he'll come flying to me for the opportunity to put his nose in my palm - recall! Targeting is a vastly under-used training tool, especially with LGDs.

The incredible Terry Ryan and her delightful husband Bill with me at Chicken Camp 2023.

What I learn in these courses that I complete allows me to come home to my LGDs, and those of my clients, and do a MUCH better job! Every single one of them, even with chickens.

50 views0 comments


bottom of page