The leghorn chicken seemed hesitant at first, then stepped toward the cardboard tunnel.
Teaching the birds
Introductory chicken training workshop with Terry Ryan
» When: 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. March 27 and April 1
The click was paired with a basket of feed right under the bird’s beak. The chicken, becoming more confident, took yet another step, this time into the tunnel. With a couple more reinforcing clicks, it eventually walked through the tunnel.
Training chickens with reward-based clicker training is the premise for dog trainer Terry Ryan’s "Poultry in Motion" workshops. Ryan, owner of Legacy Canine Behavior & Training Center in Washington state and a former American Kennel Club judge, has been offering chicken workshops across the nation since 1995.
But why chickens? Because most dog owners or trainers have no experience with the animals, according to Ryan. With pets, she said, there’s a history and a relationship that comes with a lot of emotional baggage. Chickens, on the other hand, are a blank slate.
"If you can do wonders with a chicken, you can do wonders with your dog," Ryan said.
At a recent workshop, the dozen participants, working in teams of two, spent the afternoon encouraging their chickens to walk through a tunnel, then peck on a round disk. Those with enough time also coaxed the birds to do it in reverse.
Click reward reinforces habits
Clicker training, as Karen Pryor, a former dolphin trainer at Sea Life Park defines it, is an animal-training method based on behavioral psychology that relies on "marking" desirable behavior and rewarding it.
Want to train a dog to sit on a carpet square? Click and reward him with a treat every time he does it. The click is considered a "marker" that lets the dog know sitting down at that spot is what you want.
Continual reinforcement of a certain behavior is called "shaping." Reinforcement of a series of behaviors is called "chaining."
Besides dogs, clicker training can work for cats, horses, rabbits, birds and other animals, according to Pryor on her website, www.clickertraining.com.
— Nina Wu
Each time a chicken performed the desired task, the trainers clicked and offered feed.
"What gets reinforced gets repeated," Ryan said.
Eventually, with enough repetition, one team had trained its chicken to cross the tunnel and peck the disk without any clicks or feed at all.
Ryan said the same type of reward-based training provides positive motivation and avoids the psychological impact of punishment such as yanking on a choke chain to get a dog to heel during a walk.
Workshop participant Tammy Nunes, owner of Doggie Adventures and Training, said the clicker training provides canines with instant feedback. "When working with dogs, we cannot tell them on Friday they did a great job fetching the ball on Wednesday," she said. "Their reinforcement has to be immediate."
Nunes, who teaches clicker training in her classes, says she prefers the method because it creates a "thinking dog" and is the perfect tool for teaching tricks, as the animals have to figure out the correct behavior for earning the reward,
Kyoko Nakayama Johnson, owner of Waialua Doggies, which organized the chicken workshops, said she learned a valuable lesson about timing using the click method and training dogs to do complex behaviors. For example, if you are teaching a dog to jump, you should click when the animal is in midair and not after its feet have touched the ground.
"As dog trainers and owners, we tend to expect too much too soon from our dogs," said Johnson, owner of a golden retriever named Luka.
In order to teach Luka to walk to a cabinet door and close it with his paw, Johnson said she learned it’s best to break it down into steps. Before the workshop, she might have tried training her dog to do both at the same time.
At more extensive workshops, Ryan has trained chickens to weave between poles, strut up and down a ramp and through tunnels — pretty much a full agility course.
Wes Wada, owner of two great Danes and five pet hens, said he’s taken at least a half-dozen dog obedience classes but never a chicken workshop. He plans to apply his new skills to both sets of pets, using rewards to help stop his dogs from barking at other canines walking by, and to keep his chickens from fighting for feed.
"Training chickens helps you become a better trainer for your dog," he said. "It teaches you about yourself as well. You have to be consistent. You can’t do things half-baked."