Category Archives: Training in Austria

Chicken Camp

As promised, here is my story of Chicken Camp.

When Cathy and I found out we would be attending chicken camp we really had no idea what to expect. That it would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable and enlightening experiences of our trip caught us both by surprise.

Anna, the owner of Animal Training Center (ATC) in Austria, and her staff use a positive approach to training using the Karen Pryor Clicker Training method. Chicken Camp is Anna’s method for training clients who wish to learn clicker training, be it for their horse, dog, or goat (this is not a joke) and attendance is mandatory for clients receiving diabetic alert dogs from her. Anna wants to make sure that when she sends a client home with a diabetic alert dog the client has the necessary skills to maintain the dog’s training in a manner consistent with how it was trained. During the camp, attendees learn how to train a chicken to perform simple tasks using a technique called clicker training. Cathy and I attended this two day workshop just before we started training with Luka. I use what I learned that weekend many times each day with Luka as I maintain his training and start to train new behaviors.

Anna and Barbara led the camp of twelve students along with Aure Lia, an intern at ATC. They work remarkably well together and have taught the camp many times over the past few years so it ran very smoothly. Our workshop days alternated between periods of presentation and discussion, playing games to reinforce what we were learning, and, of course, training our chickens. A lot of time was spent learning about classical conditioning and operant conditioning which are the bedrock upon which clicker training rests.

Our very first job was to choose a chicken and get comfortable handling it. Four large dog crates containing three chickens each were placed on tables at the edge of the room. Each chicken wore a different colored leg band. Anna and Barbara demonstrated how to properly remove a chicken from the crate and gently hold it with your hands over the wings or snug against your body so that the animal felt safe. They showed us how to gently place it on the tables spread throughout the room where training would take place. Initially I named mine Ralph until Cathy pointed out that they were all females so she was renamed Raphina.

It was a little intimidating at first, especially reaching into the crate and having to pull a reluctant chicken out head (and beak) first. There was a bit of squawking and flapping of wings around the room the first few times but in short order we all became confident chicken handlers.

Why a chicken?

  • Chickens give little emotional or cognitive feedback. The trainer tends not to develop an emotional bond with the chicken so he doesn’t try to interpret their thoughts or feelings and can remain objective.
  • Chickens have a high food drive so it is easy to reward them when they perform a desired behavior.
  • Chickens make frequent, fast movements of their head which is helpful when “free shaping” behavior which I’ll explain shortly.
  • Chickens are small and it is relatively easy to manage a roomful of untrained animals which you certainly could not say about dogs. This also allows students to learn from their fellow students.
  • If you can clicker train a chicken, you can train anything. The technique can and has been used on virtually every animal. It has even been used to train a small fish in a home aquarium as shown in this amazing video.

Each of us were asked to gather in three person teams. Our teams would be there to help each other during training sessions since the person training often needs help maintaining a clean table, observing what is working and isn’t working, clearing away spilled bird food, moving objects on the table, and generally supporting each other. Cathy and I were lucky to be paired with a woman named Andrea who spoke excellent English and we became fast friends. She attended the camp because she has a horse and goat and wants to train them to do basic tasks such as move away from an opened gate.

Andrea “charging” the clicker”

Now comfortable with handling our chickens, our next job was to do what some people call “charging the clicker.” We needed to teach our hen to associate the sound of the clicker with a forthcoming reward. We held a small seed-filled short-handled basket behind our back (so the chicken couldn’t see it). We then clicked our clicker (taped to the short handle of the basket) and promptly presented the basket just long enough for the chicken to peck once and then quickly removed it. After only a few repetitions the chickens started looking for the basket as soon as they heard the click. This is classical conditioning in action – the animal instinctually associates the sound of the click with food. Our chickens seemed more comfortable with this training than we did at first with all the motions we had to do to get it done correctly – it is not as easy as it sounds and my first few attempts ended up with a table covered with spilled bird seed.


Each of our training periods were very short – no more than 30 seconds at a time – after which the chickens were returned to their crates and we returned to our seats to talk about our experiences and continue learning about the theory behind this form of training. This pattern repeated itself throughout the weekend: sit for a while to learn and discuss training theory, retrieve your chicken and train for 30 seconds with your teammates, return your chicken to the crate, and help your teammates with their chickens.

A student trains her hen to peck the target.

Okay – so the chickens know that click equals reward. Next we had to train them to peck a 4 inch diameter circle made of red construction paper that we placed on our tables. There are several techniques you can use to shape behavior with clicker training and we were using one called free shaping. In free shaping you wait for the animal to randomly perform a desired behavior upon which you click and reward. Now, if we waited for our chickens to peck the red circle we would have been there all day with very hungry chickens. Instead we paid close attention to the chicken and clicked whenever it turned its head, looked, or moved its body in the direction of the target (the red circle).

The clicker is effectively our way of communicating the message, “I like that behavior and you are about to get a reward.” If you’ve ever watched a chicken you’ll know that they are constantly moving their heads in short, quick motions. It was absolutely crucial that you click AS SOON as you see a good behavior or the chicken would not understand which behavior you wanted. Some of the games we played were purely to hone our clicker timing skills. For example, Barbara would drop a bouncy ball onto the table and we had to click as soon as it bounced in ever shortening intervals.

Very gradually, over several training sessions we started to demand more from our chickens. We would no longer reward mere glances at the target, they had to actually move towards it, or lower their heads a little before we would click and reward. Once we were confident that they understood what behavior we expected, we would again raise the criteria. It took many training sessions of very slight progress in each before we could reliably get our chicken to peck the red circle on the table. Yet, our chickens learned how to peck at a circle in under 4 minutes of total training time, about eight 30-second training sessions!

One of the things we learned about and definitely saw with our chickens were sudden breakthroughs where it seemed like the chicken suddenly understood, “Oh – I know what you want” and offered exactly the right behavior. These were rewarded with “jackpots” where we let the chickens peck several times from our basket. The entire team rejoiced at these small victories – it was a lot of fun!

By the end of the first day we had all gotten our chickens to perform the basic task of pecking the red paper target. On day two we had to choose a new task for our chicken to perform. Anna and Barbara had a collection of props we could use including a plastic bowling pin you might train your chicken to knock over, a fuzzy dice you might train your chicken to pick up and drop, a bell for the chicken to peck at and ring, and so forth.

Color discrimination.

Several objects fell in the category of item categorization in which the animal is trained to choose between several similar but slightly different objects. For example there were tiny plastic toy figures: a wolf, a giraffe, and a soldier. One could train the chicken to peck at just one of those animals and ignore the others. I chose a similar task that involved color discrimination wherein I trained my chicken to only peck the red circle and ignore the green, blue, and yellow circles of identical size that we placed at random places on the table. By the end of the day Ralphina would be able to turn completely around to find the target behind her and clear across the table, walk to it, and peck it to get her reward, ignoring the other colored targets along the way.

Using the techniques we learned the previous day we set to work in short training sessions training our chickens to perform the desired behavior. Some chickens proved easier to train than others. Andrea’s chicken was fairly challenging and she had to proceed in the tiniest increments to get her chicken to take interest in the bowling pin. We worked together as a team to talk about what was and wasn’t working and by the end of the day she succeeded. Cathy trained her chicken to peck and ring a bell that one of us held aloft on a string.

Cathy successfully taught her chicken to peck the bell.

One student trained her hen to pull a small toy.

As I mentioned, we did not only train our chickens. Indeed, by the end of the two days we had probably only trained our hens for a total of 20 minutes or less. We also played games. Some of my favorite moments from the weekend were playing a game I called Human Clicker Training. Here’s how it worked. One person was chosen to be the trainer and another chosen to be the trainee. The trainee left the room and the class chose a behavior that the trainer would coerce the trainee to do using just a clicker to communicate. At first the tasks were very simple, such as walk to a specific table in the room, pick up an object, carry it to and place it on a different table. Some tasks were silly like when a man had to clicker train his wife to kiss him on the cheek.

After clicker training a kiss.

Once the behavior was chosen, the trainee entered the room and had to randomly offer behaviors to see what elicited a click. At first the offered behaviors were large and coarse – basic movement around the room akin to playing the “hotter/colder” children’s game. Some of the behaviors required very precise and subtle motions and it became quickly apparent that you have to break the desired behavior into very small discrete steps.

When it was my turn to be the trainee, the behavior they chose was that I had to walk into the room, sit in a specific chair and touch the tip of my pointer finger on my right hand to my nose in a very precise way. Getting to the chair was pretty easy. After that it became really hard. First I had to figure out that the behavior involved my right hand so my trainer clicked only when I moved my right arm. I started moving my arm slowly around and she had to click any time it came close to my head. Let me tell you, it took quite a while for me to get it – it was probably only a few minutes but it felt like an hour and was very tiring. A poorly timed click had me convinced that I had to touch my ear somehow and I spent a long time offering very odd (and apparently hilarious) behaviors without getting a click.

Besides being an enormously entertaining game, being the trainee let me feel firsthand some of what the animals we train must be feeling whether they be chicken, dog, horse or dolphin. I strongly felt many emotions including excitement, frustration, and elation at breakthrough moments.

The trainer also experienced what it was like to train an animal more intelligent than a chicken, which definitely complicates matters. Chickens seem to not get frustrated, nor do they seem to try to guess what you want – they are very easy to train. More intelligent animals on the other hand can get very frustrated or even angry and are actively involved in trying to interpret the meaning of a well or poorly timed click. Being able to empathize with your trainee is crucial, especially when you are trying to train a 3000 pound hippo to open his mouth while you brush his teeth.

This was my trainee for the game. I had to instruct her via clicker to pickup the roll of paper towels and place it on her crutch. This was a LOT harder than it sounds!

Anna, Barbara, and everyone in the class were warm and welcoming and made our language barrier inconsequential. We had great conversations with some lovely people including a couple who are interested in getting a diabetic alert dog for their young son.

Overall I can’t say enough positive things about the experience and I would jump in a heartbeat if an opportunity came to take the more advanced class, Chicken Camp 2. Cathy and I are already reminiscing about our time in Austria and dreaming about returning so who knows – maybe we’ll be back!

Special thanks to my wife, Cathy, for her tireless and excellent editing skills and to Aure Lia who took many of the pictures featured in this post.


Self Interview

It has been a little over two weeks since I first met Luka and one week since coming home to the US. The days have been full of many firsts and memorable experiences. I’ve decided to document my experience as a self-interview.

Dave: How is everything going?
Dave: Really well. Every day gets a little easier as we find our routine but everything has been great. Luka fits wonderfully into my life and I already feel like he is an old friend I’ve known for years.

Dave: How was Austria?
Dave: Spectacular! Visiting a foreign country always expands your worldview and this trip was no different. It is a beautiful country in many dimensions and Cathy and I have many fond memories of our time there. Anna and her husband, and Barbara our trainer really went out of their way to make us feel like family and we are deeply grateful for their kindness and hospitality.

Dave & Luka in Austria

Dave: How did you get by not knowing any German?
Dave: Funny you (I) should ask. We got to the Bed and Breakfast where we had arranged to stay and found they spoke very little English. I managed to convey that we had a reservation and they said that they had no record of it. Cathy and I were exhausted after a red-eye flight and in bad need of a shower and a nap. I found the reservation confirmation on my iPhone and showed it to them. The husband and wife proprietor argued a bit in German and apologized and were obviously trying to figure out where they would put us. I’m not sure exactly what happened next – either I randomly said something in Spanish or the hostess did because we both looked at each other with surprise and said, “¿Habla Espanol?” It was really a comedic moment as we proceeded to converse freely in Spanish. Cathy’s and my high-school Spanish held up remarkably well and we enjoyed conversing with her every day in a mix of English and Spanish with a German word thrown in for good measure.

Otherwise language wasn’t much of an issue. Anna and Barbara speak English as do most people in Graz, the major city about 25 minutes distant that we visited on several occasions. The big challenge for me was dinner. Often we were too tired to go into the city so we ate at smallish restaurants in villages where menus were entirely in German. In some cases we found friendly waiters who spoke English and were happy to help. In a few cases, not so much. We got by but since diabetes demands that I know what I am eating, every mealtime was a bit stressful and I ended up sticking with a small selection of menu items I could recognize or get translated. Cathy found it far less stressful and was much more adventurous.

We did have to learn a handful of German words and phrases because some of the commands Luka knows are in German and some are in English.

Dave: Are there any particular memories from training week that stand out for you?
Dave: There are many, and some of them I’ll be devoting entire blog posts to, such as Chicken Camp.

The first day we were there we walked from the B&B to Anna’s farm to meet Luka for the first time. It was uphill most of the way so by the time I got there I was low and I told Anna this before she let Luka out. Luka came out of the house, excited to meet new people, and quickly greeted me. Then he went right to Anna and started tugging on her bringsel. She redirected him to me, and he immediately came over and found the bringsel I was wearing and tugged it off. We had a big dog party and gave him a LOT of tasty canned dog food – our first meeting was probably as memorable for him as it was for me.

Luka’s first alert

One evening as we were getting ready to leave the farm, one of Anna’s dogs escaped and ran full-tilt towards a neighbor down the road who was outside gardening. The dog was very excited and wanted to visit his friend. Earlier that day we had been working on the “really reliable recall” which uses classical conditioning to associate two short blasts on a whistle with a very high value reward. Since it is classical conditioning (not operant) the dog practically has no choice but to turn around and race back to the trainer. I was the only one who had a whistle and Anna quickly urged me to blow it. I could not believe how effectively it worked. That dog was at full speed, only about 20 feet from the object of his desire – the neighbor. But upon hearing the whistle he immediately put on the brakes, turned around and ran back to Anna as fast as he had been running away. I was VERY impressed and Anna was VERY proud. Seriously – I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

On the first day after having Luka overnight, our assignment was to drive with Luka to a nearby village, take a walk through a park, and meet Barbara afterwards at a cafe. Being alone with him in public with potentially difficult distractions was pretty intimidating to me at first – it felt very much like when my flight instructor opened the door of the plane after landing and said, “Ok, Dave – you’re ready to solo. Have fun!” In both cases I tended to overcontrol the situation at first but soon muscle memory and training kicked in and I was able to relax and enjoy a unique sense of freedom. During our walk we came across a childcare facility with a fenced-in playground full of 3 and 4 year old children. Cathy’s background is in early childhood education and, having four kids, we both loved and miss this special age so we put Luka in a down near the fence as the children came to look and babble at us in German. One of their teachers came over who had good English skills and asked us about Luka. We told her the whole story about him being a service dog trained to detect hypoglycemia associated with diabetes. A look of recognition came over her as she told us about a friend who is diabetic and also wears an insulin pump. She thought it was amazing what Luka could do and translated what the children were saying about him. They were very adorable.

Dave: What about your family life? What do your kids think of Luka?
Dave: They are each developing their own special relationship with him. Some are more reserved, some are more demonstrative, and Luka meets each of them on their terms. When we get home each day he runs through the house to find each member of the family and greet them. We took our trainer’s suggestion and came up with a family name for Luka: “Fritzi.”

The reasoning for this makes good sense: Imagine Luka is a superhero. He has a special power that can protect people from harm (specifically, me) and when he is called into action by his superhero name, Luka, he knows it is his duty to take notice and respond. But Luka also has a life as a mild-mannered member of our family who pet him, talk about him, and call him into over to play with his squeeky toy. At these times we use his family name, Fritzi, so he knows that he has the option of responding to or ignoring us – basically that he is “off duty.” Cathy and I are currently the only ones authorized to call him Luka since we are the only ones who know how to properly issue and reinforce his super-hero commands.

Speaking of super-heroes, there’s this great picture that Frank Wisnesky made. I met Frank at the Wildrose conference this year. He is Dad to a type 1 diabetic daughter and is very involved in the DAD community.










Dave: How was it getting Luka home?
Dave: Cathy and I have differing memories of the experience. I remember Luka as being fairly anxious and stressed during the flight and having to spend a lot of time comforting him and preventing him from looking for a parachute and emergency exit. Cathy remembers that there were some periods of time like this but there were also periods when Luka seemed accepting of the situation and we were able to watch an entire movie and eat a meal while he lay by my feet. Her theory is that I was more stressed than Luka was, primarily out of compassion for his obvious preference to be anywhere but on that plane. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Dave: After all the trouble you had getting permissing to bring Luka to work, how has it been?
Dave: My co-workers have been incredibly supportive and considerate. Many people have politely let me know how cool they think Luka is and that they are glad he is there. People have been respectful and avoid interacting with him although I have introduced him selectively to some people who he will be around a lot. We’ve settled into a nice routine that includes a long walk at a wildlife refuge on the way to work, a short mid-morning walk in the woods near the parking lot, a longer walk through a park at lunch, a short mid-afternoon walk around the parking lot, and a long walk or bike ride on our street when we get home.

Dave: Bike ride?
Dave: Yes – Luka really likes to run so I bought an attachment for my bike that allows him to be safely tethered to my bike while I ride at a reasonable pace for short distances. Did I mention he likes to run? I often end up putting on the brakes because he is pulling the bike faster than I want him to go – I think in a former life he was on a sled-dog team. At first he tried to bolt after squirrels and rabbits while tethered to the bike but quickly discovered that I outweigh him and the momentum of the bike demands that he keep running in the same direction lest he get dragged. I’ve been practicing riding wide figure eights which forces him to focus on the bike or get run over and this has made our rides really easy – he completely ignores barking dogs that we ride past because he really can’t afford to be distracted.

Dave: Are there any aspects of living with a service dog that differ from your expectations before you had Luka?
Dave: There are many. The most profound is my experience with public access. All along I had fears about feeling self-conscious and out of place bringing a service dog into public places. I thought I would feel a loss of privacy since having a service dog is a pretty big advertisement that you have a medical “problem.” Those fears were mostly unfounded. I feel pretty confident and bold when Luka and I walk into a public place like the library, grocery store, or mall. I stand tall and walk like I have every right to be there. I do tend to avoid eye contact with people but I suspect that will change with time. Even my youngest boys notice that people stare and children point and ask questions – I’m aware of this in my periphery but I’m careful to leave it there.

Dave: Thanks for talking with yourself today. Would you be willing to let me interview you again in a few months to see how you progress?
Dave: I’d be happy to. You know where to find me!


Watch This!

Goofing around at Zotter Chocolate Factory in Austria.

We made it! After an intense week of training and a long flight from Austria, Luka, Cathy and I are settling in to our new life. There are so many stories to tell about our time in Austria that I don’t know where to begin. I’m inclined to tell it sequentially – start at the beginning. But so much is happening every day now that such an approach seems restrictive. Instead I’ve decided to tell the story in snippets merging my current experience with moments from training week.

One of the commands Luka and I have been working on a lot is “watch.” When I give this command he is supposed to look at and focus on me, upon which I mark his behavior with the clicker and give him a treat. This is easy when there are no distractions – indeed most of the time at home or at work he he is checking in with me with great regularity. As the level of distraction increases however, it becomes much harder for him to focus on me. During these times, the chance that my commands will fall on deaf ears increases proportionally with the level of distraction (SQUIRREL!). It is of utmost importance that I enforce 100% of the commands that I issue. If I tell him to sit, he has to sit, and if he does not – mostly likely because he is distracted – it is crucial that I recapture his focus and get him to sit. Failure to do this will, over time, erode his training since he’ll get the idea that he has a choice over which commands to obey and under what circumstances he can ignore them.

It seems to me that the watch command is the bedrock upon which all other commands rest. If you can’t reliably hold or capture your dog’s attention even in times of high distraction then you will inevitably find yourself unable to control him in those situations and end up resorting to brute force or just avoiding those situations entirely – neither of which is ideal. Obviously no dog is perfect, and complete control is probably an unattainable ideal but it is a worthy goal to work towards. So we work on it every day when we are out walking. Often he turns and looks my way without my issuing a “watch” command and I reward this behavior as well. This is all part of operant conditioning, a topic I’ll be explaining in detail when I blog about Chicken Camp, and is central to Luka’s training philosophy.

Once Luka was solidy responding to watch commands and freely offering watch behavior without command I changed the game on him by varying the level of reward that he receives each time. At all times I carry four different level treats with me, another topic I’ll be covering in the future. Level 4 is dry kibble. Level 1 is a mix of chicken and hamburg that we cook on the weekends and package into single-serving containers and is only given as a reward for alerts and a “Really Reliable Recall” command. Level 2 and 3 fall on the tastiness spectrum in between. When Luka responds to a watch command he always gets a treat – I use a lot of level 4’s and 3’s but sometimes I throw in a level 2. When he offers a watch behavior without command then I use the same variable reward scheme except that sometimes I don’t reward at all.

This is called variable reinforcement and is a huge multiplyer for behavioral control. In Luka’s head he is gambling each time he performs the behavior – he never knows exactly what reward he will receive and every so often he gets a jackpot. Yes, I am turning my dog into a gambling junky. Fortunately his paws can’t hold poker chips or pull the arm on a slot machine. This method really works and I can see its impact already. When Luka looks at me there is a questioning look in his eye with a bit of excitement as if he is saying, “What are you going to give me this time, Dave?” It engages him mentally in the game and keeps his focus on me. Games of chance are highly addictive because of the way our brains are wired and I am taking advantage of that to maintain connection with Luka. But unlike in a casino where the house always wins, Luka and I both win – he gets rewarded every time, our bond deepens, and my ability to control his behavior and self-control is strengthened.

During the first two days of training I had a very hard time capturing and holding Luka’s focus. Barbara, our trainer for the week, intentionally put us in highly distracting situations to promote this connection, such as walking past other dogs in a penned area. On Tuesday, our second day of training, Barbara went into a tall fenced-in area and picked up a chicken. I had to walk past the fence with Luka and keep him under control. This was among the most intimidating experiences of the entire week. Barbara had advised me that, should Luka ignore my watch command, I should step towards him with my knees towards his face so that he pretty much had to look up, which I could subsequently reward as a “watch” behavior with a really good treat and, having regained his attention, get him to sit or lie down where he would find it easier to maintain self control. Giving the treat would be important because I needed to remind him what was waiting for him if he would choose to focus on me rather than the chicken, and I couldn’t just offer a treat for free.

Dancing with Luka

Boy did Luka want to go for that chicken! As predicted, my watch commands were completely ignored so Barbara asked me to make him watch and get him to sit. What ensued was a comical dance where Luka would try to peek through or around my legs as I pushed towards him, completely refusing to look up at me and instead trying to keep both eyes on the chicken. Then he started turning in circles backwards and we danced around and around a few inches at a time while he stared excitedly at the chicken and made whining noises. I felt completely out of control. It did eventually work although I’m not entirely sure if it was what I was doing or if he just got bored with the dance. Eventually he looked at me and I rewarded him with a big dose of level 2 and he sat down because it was far more comfortable than looking straight up and eating while standing on all fours. After that, his head swiveled back and forth between me and the chicken as I continued to reinforce his self-control. It wasn’t pretty but it did work in the end. I was thoroughly exhausted!

Back in control!

That night as I was thinking about my day I was thinking how much I disliked that experience and that I would never want to do that again. But I realized that it was actually really valuable because it gave me confidence. Ok, it wasn’t pretty and I was definitely not in complete control. I didn’t resort to brute force to control Luka, and we made it through. There will be times when we encounter similar difficult situations and knowing that I’ll be able to handle them – with or without grace – was very reassuring.

On Thursday Barbara said she wanted to try the “chicken” distraction again. I was thinking, “no problem – we’ve really been working hard since then – this should be a piece of cake.” Then Barbara explained that the situation would be a little different. First of all Luka and I would be alone inside the chicken coop with many chickens and ducks and no fence to separate us. Second of all Luka would be off-leash. Ok – now she had my attention. I’ll cut to the chase (pun intended) and say that no chickens or ducks were harmed in the exercise. Luka did great. It was a lot of work and but I was able to maintain at least a semblance of control using just my voice and body language.

I’m writing this on Thursday, the Fourth of July, just a week after the chicken test. My life has changed so much since then, as has Luka’s. It was a week of many firsts and that’s what I’ll be blogging about next.