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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.