Last week, Kelly and I were lucky enough to attend an Operant Conditioning Chicken Workshop with Bob Bailey and Parvene Farhoody. So many people have asked me “why train chickens when you’re a dog trainer?”, and in all honesty, 3 years ago, I’d have asked the same question. It’s a valid question, so I’ll attempt to answer it as thoroughly as possible. Chances are some of you will still be shaking your head in wonder, which is understandable. Truth be told, you have to really be a behavior geek to enjoy 40+ hours of information, learning, loud and potentially hand-pecking chickens and as much education that can possibly be packed into 5 days. It’s stressful and challenging and, in the end, I learned more about myself as both a trainer and a human being than I ever would have thought possible.

Often referred to as “chicken camp”, these workshops are the last remaining link in a chain that starts with B.F. Skinner, who coined the term operant conditioning. He believed that the best way to understand behavior was to look at what caused it (antecedent) and it’s consequences. Working from Edward Thorndike’s “Law of Effect”, which stated that behavior followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated and behavior which is followed by unpleasant consequences is likely to stop, Skinner applied the words reinforcement for behaviors that increase and punishment for behaviors that decrease. Two graduate students of Skinner’s, Marian and Keller Breland saw tremendous possibilities for this and started a business they called “Animal Behavior Enterprises” in which they trained numerous species of animals to do a great number of tasks. This included exhibits for theme parks, commercials and even military and government work. Marian and Keller worked together until Keller’s death, at which point, Bob Bailey joined ABE. He and Marian married in 1976, and ran ABE together until her death in 2001. And, part of the beauty of all of this is that, regardless of species, all animals have been trained without pain. Amazing, huh? No fear, no intimidation, just skilled trainers. Bob’s work has remained true to Skinner’s applications of operant conditioning and chicken camp is a tour de force of Skinnerian terms and definitions during lectures, and living proof of their power during training sessions. Reinforcement and punishment are powerful tools. Chickens just so happen to be excellent teachers for those of us who want to use those tools correctly.

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So, what is it about the chickens that make them such excellent teachers? Chickens are fast-moving, fast-learning and training them requires a level of precision that we generally don’t need with dogs. In other words, chickens are less forgiving. And, it’s really not about the chickens. It’s about the trainers. How is the trainer’s timing? Is the trainer’s body language telling the chicken something inadvertently? Is the trainer clicking too soon or too late? How are the trainer’s mechanics? Despite the fast and furious pace, maintaining what is known as a “quiet body”  can help avoid those body language “tells” we don’t want. Is the trainer feeding in the right positions? At one point, I had essentially turned my chicken into Derek Zoolander. She wouldn’t turn left. Once I fixed that issue, things improved, but, it was amazing to see just how quickly I could train something that I didn’t mean to. By consistently feeding her in one position, I created a bias and she didn’t believe that another would pay off and so it took a few trials to get her back into the game.

One of the maxims of chicken camp is “You click, you feed.” This means that even if we click for the wrong behavior, we feed the chicken. Another maxim is “One reinforcement does not a behavior make.” But, if you are sloppy and you make the same mistake more than once, you can very easily end up with a behavior that you did not want at all. It’s also easy to make your chickens not enjoy handling and have them start pecking at you, so trainer error is visible and painful. I had a not so great time handling one of my chickens and made lots of adjustments to my approach to help her feel more comfortable and the other was a dream to handle. One sentence we heard a lot was: “Adjust your behavior”, so I can’t blame my (defective, dominant, wanting to be peck leader?) chicken, I have to look at what I was doing that made her uncomfortable.  And how silly does it sound to say that my chicken was trying to be dominant? Does it mean the other was eager to please? Nope. I can only surmise that just like dogs, every chicken is an individual. By adjusting my behavior, I was able to adjust my chicken’s behavior. I didn’t “put her in her place” and you can’t force chickens to do anything, because they’ll either peck at you or fly away (and you will feel like an idiot if your chicken leaves the table, just sayin’), you can’t yank on a chickens neck, squeeze their feet or hold their beak closed if they are doing something you don’t want. You MUST adjust your own behavior. And that is brilliant as it applies to dog training. The toolbox? If you’ve got an understanding of how operant conditioning works and are able to apply positive reinforcement and negative punishment competently, guess what? Your need for special tools goes down because your skill level will be good.

What I learned about myself as a trainer is that as much as I think I know and understand, there is always more to learn. As far as skills go, I really learned how to quiet my body. In video from day 2, I am all over the place. The still below is from day 4. I stopped lunging and became able to click faster, keep my rate of reinforcement up and not make a mess with feed. My “Cadillac Chicken” and I finished our final task. The other one….well, let’s just say she and I had some problems. But, that in itself really drove home to me the importance of adjusting my expectations and behavior so that I could be most effective with the chicken who was on the table. It made me aware that just like when working with dogs, some chickens will experience frustration if it’s not made worth their while to stay in the game. And, how do we get them to stay in the game? Via positive reinforcement. By clicking and feeding, we use the process of reinforcement to make the behavior we want continue. And, with chickens, you have to do that fast.

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What I learned about myself is harder to put into words. I learned that I can focus more than I ever thought possible. I learned that I can take feedback, not defend what mistakes I may have made and put the feedback to use. I learned that I can handle an intense atmosphere and not take my stress out on other people. I learned that I can feel like crying and giving up, but, push past it and keep moving forward. I learned that I can keep pushing myself,  I can keep trying harder and I can Get The Behavior! And, when I do, it’s a beautiful thing.

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I also got to spend time with some pretty incredible women while learning from the best. Top row: Amie of the Md SPCA who was featured in our Trainer Spotlight, Sarah of Yaletown Dog Training , me, Emily of the amazing blog The Unexamined Dog. Bottom row: Maria of Tony LaRussa’s Animal Rescue Foundation , Jade of Animal Behaviour Matters (who traveled all the way from Australia)  and our very own Kelly. I don’t know that I could have done it without the positive reinforcement and classical conditioning (because we can’t forget Pavlov- he’s always on our shoulder!) that came along for the ride that these women brought to the experience. Thanks to hard work and lots of laughter to balance out the stress, I definitely developed a positive conditioned positive response to chicken camp and plan to attend more workshops in the future.

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Click here to learn more about the Bailey-Farhoody Chicken Workshops.