Monthly Archives: August 2013

Food Glorious Food!

Luka’s training method uses positive reinforcement to reward behavior. In my Chicken Camp blog post I described how a clicker is used to mark a desired behavior and let the chicken know that a reward in the form of food is forthcoming. This is the same basic technique used with Luka but with several enhancements. First of all, a reward can take many forms including praise, play, and touch yet it is mostly delivered in the form of food because it is a primary motivator. Secondly I vary the quality and quantity of food depending upon level of difficulty. Lastly a reward is not always preceded by a click. I still use the clicker during training sessions such as when we are on a walk and I ask him to sit or put him in a down. However when in some “real life” situations like at work, or in a grocery store or restaurant I can silently reward him with food when he correctly executes a command since the clicker is often inconvenient and noisily intrusive.

Luka gets four different levels of reward food, level 4 being the lowest reward level, level 1 being the highest level; each level is a little tastier and more enticing than the prior. Which reward he gets depends on how strongly I want to reinforce a given behavior and how hard he had to work. For example, putting him in a down while I shop for jeans won’t earn him much since there isn’t much distraction and he probably wanted to lie down anyways out of sheer boredom. However putting him in a down because a rabbit has foolishly decided to run across the field behind our favorite ice cream place will earn him a much higher reward because of the sheer willpower he had to muster in order to comply.

His level 4 reward (low end) is a high quality, grain free kibble. He gets this for simple commands like down, sit, place, and heel unless there is significant distraction or I’m trying to shape the behavior in a new way. I’ve tried a few brands but lately have settled on Acana Pacifica. Luka really likes anything that tastes fishy – the stinkier the better. The other reason I really like this stuff is that the kibble size is not too small. I tried some other brands with smaller kibble and to give him a fair reward I would have to give him a small handful which is rarely convenient and usually ends up with a slobbered hand. I like being able to toss him one piece through the air and I think he enjoys tracking the trajectory and snatching it in mid-air. Plus we look really cool when we do it – I feel like one of those SeaWorld trainers who can toss a fish and get it to land right where the animal is jumping.

I use a wide variety of products for Luka’s level 3 rewards. They are usually about the same size as one or two pieces of kibble but are softer and tastier. I like the Zuke’s products although I’m not convinced they are super healthy. My favorite is Pet Botanics Grain Free Salmon Omega Treats. They stay pretty soft over time and I can easily cut them into smaller bites. These seem to be Luka’s favorite too. I can’t tell you how I decide when to give a level 3 instead of a level 4 reward – there’s some crazy formula I have in my head that directs my hand to one pouch or the other. It mostly involves how much distraction he had to ignore and how well he executed the task. Lazily laying down after looking around to make sure there isn’t anything more interesting to do will earn a level 4 (or sometimes not even that) whereas a snappy down right where and when I want it will earn a level 3 and a kind word of praise or scruff behind the ears.

Level 2 rewards are the first step into the big leagues. He only gets these for difficult behaviors or behaviors I really want to reinforce. Luka and I have been working hard at dog encounters which are challenging for him. He really wants to bark and interact and I want him to just pretend the other dog doesn’t exist. We are pretty close to my goal although it has been a lot of work. As soon as we see another dog approaching I get his attention with a “watch” command and reward him with a level 2 reward which is supremely tasty. I’ll let him look at the other dog but as soon as I think he is getting overexcited or about to bark I capture his attention again and reward him again with level 2. This process repeats until Luka is visibly calm or the other dog is out of range. It has worked remarkably well. Luka’s default behavior now when he sees another dog is to look at me pleadingly which I immediately reward with level 2. I have successfully taught him that the tasty reward I have in my pouch is far more interesting than an approaching dog. I also use this reward for recalls and other really important behaviors. I currently alternate between two level 2 treats: Charki Puffs which is dried beef lung coated with dried beef liver paste, and Cadet Gourmet Salmon Snacks. These are dry and hard and can be easily broken into smaller pieces depending on how big a reward I want to give. Luka goes bonkers over these treats, in large part, because they have a very strong taste and an even stronger smell. The strong odor has actually been a bit of a problem – my treat pouch which is permanently attached to my belt has taken on quite the odiferous personality. I’ve taken to keeping my daily supply sealed tight in a ziplock bag. Of course this slows down delivery at reward time which is usually time-critical so I’m still working out how to handle this.

Level 1 is the holy grail of rewards and is reserved for only two behaviors: blood sugar alerts and the Really Reliable Recall. I rotate between a few different ingredients but they all involve meat. Usually it is grilled chicken breast cut into pieces and divided into hearty servings. Sometimes I’ll add pieces of cooked hamburg or slices of beef or turkey hot dogs. Lately I’ve also been supplementing with a single-serving of string cheese which I peel into long stringy pieces that he stretches from my hand whilst standing on two feet. Being ahead of the game and having level 1 treats available as needed takes preparation. Once a week I’ll grill up a whole package of chicken, cut the pieces into small pieces and divide them into Ziplock bags which I keep in the freezer then thaw as I need them. I do the same thing when we grill hamburgers, making extras to cut up and freeze for a later date.


Good thing we have a big grill!

You may have noticed from my description that I didn’t list what I feed him at meal time. That’s because he has no meal time. All of Luka’s food – every bite he eats – he earns as a reward. He never gets a bowl of food. We don’t even own one. When I tell people this they often look at me incredulously then start in with a predictable series of questions that reflect the questions and issues I had to resolve during training.

The issue most people raise is the hardest for some to accept although it wasn’t really a problem for me. It usually takes the form of “aren’t you just bribing him?” or “that sounds like slavery”. In general they question the morality of the work-for-food scheme. Here’s the thing: dogs need to work. They need to have a job and a purpose, especially big dogs of the working breeds. It is only in the last hundred+ years that humans started keeping dogs *purely* as pets which is why all the small “designer” breeds are fairly recent inventions. The idea that Luka is somehow being duped or bribed doesn’t make much sense. Am I being duped or bribed when I go to work every day in exchange for a paycheck? In the end, we all work for food in some capacity, each according to their own abilities. Even my youngest son, Timmy, has chores he is expected to do or he’ll starve (just kidding).

The bigger issue I had to wrap my head around has to do with the day to day implications: how am I going to carry all this food around? My answer to this question is still evolving but the current solution looks like this:

The blue treat pouch is a high quality self-closing pouch with two internal sections where I keep level 3 and 4 treats. The clip on the outside is my own invention for hanging used poop bags during walks. The black fanny pack has several zippered sections where I keep the following:

  • A glucometer kit
  • Smarties, peanut butter crackers, and granola bars (for me)
  • ADA information cards
  • Level 2 treats in a ziplock
  • Two or three level 1 treats in ziplock bags plus string cheese
  • A small plastic bowl to feed him level 1 treats without making a mess
  • Extra poop bags
  • Just-Add-Water paper towels in case of emergency


Each morning I load up with the supplies I’ll need for the day, strap it on and I’m ready to go!

The system of carrying all his food around and constantly rewarding him was hard to get used to. However the benefit is hard to dispute: training happens continuously. We don’t put aside a half hour a day or an hour on a weekend to train in the back yard. All day long, as long as we are awake, we are training. Every time he sits on command, he gets reinforced. Every. Time. There are some behaviors that we don’t exercise regularly so I *do* put aside periods when we can practice these but they are easily integrated into our daily walks or play time in the yard.

Some days there just aren’t enough opportunities to reward Luka,  especially when we are just hanging out at home. On these occasions I let him exercise his mind with a treat ball full of kibble or this really fun dog puzzle. I shot this video the second time we used it but now he’s a pro – he quickly opens every compartment and finds the treats. Time for a new challenge!





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.