I swear I'm not crazy.
Chicken Camp. It exists. Yes, you can train chickens, but why on earth would you need to train a chicken? For those of you in the animal and pet care field, you might have heard of Chicken Camp. These workshops are held world wide and taught by the finest in the animal training industry; most notably Terry Ryan of Legacy Canine Behavior & Training, and Bob Bailey along with his colleague, Parvene Farhoody of Behavior Matters®, Inc.
So why did I choose to spend 4 days inside an air conditioned dog training facility during one of the hottest weeks of the year? Ummm...because it was one of the hottest weeks of the year so far and I got to train chickens with Terry Ryan. Duh.
When it comes to training dogs (or any animal), there are some important aspects to consider during your sessions which can directly affect your results. We take a look at the animal's physical and mental welfare. We address the animal's training environment to make sure it is feeling comfortable and as stress free as possible. We figure out what motivates the animal, what we want the animal to do, what our criteria is, and how we can break down a behaviour in order to shape the finished behaviour we are trying to obtain. We make sure timing and delivery are spot on and our rate of reinforcement is generous to start when teaching something new. Dogs are incredibly patient creatures, even when us humans fall short on our end. Chickens? Well... Chickens are quick. Don't believe me? Try spilling some food pellets near a hungry chicken and then try sweeping the pellets away from them before they get to peck any. They are insanely quick. During your training sessions, if you're not doing it right, or your chicken is stressed, or you start to ask for too much too soon, they will literally fly away from you. Chickens will take none of your B.S. I am always looking to improve my mechanical skills when it comes to dog training, so working with a completely different species made total sense to me.
Challenge accepted. I signed up for a 4 day Chicken Camp Workshop with Terry Ryan, hosted by Cowichan Canine in Duncan, B.C. Let's start by acknowledging that I have never held a chicken in my life. Well, actually that's not true. I've held a few wings and drumsticks between my fingers with a side of mashed potatoes in my time, but I'm talking about a real live squawky chicken here. I'm not going to lie; I was seriously nervous and had already pictured getting my eyes pecked out as soon as the cage opened. Thankfully, Terry gave us the run down beforehand on how to properly hold a chicken by giving us a demo on a plush toy beanie chicken. In a nutshell, you need to secure their wings right snug against their body with both your hands, (at the joints!!! AT THE JOINTS!!!!). If possible, secure the chicken snug against your own body and for the love of Elijah Wood in "The Good Son", do not let go. If they aren't secure, the chicken will surely wing slap your face repeatedly and you will end up with a mouth full of feathers as you scream.
Each person was assigned 2 chickens to work with throughout the entire workshop. I met some wonderful ladies from all different backgrounds. Dog trainers, vet assistants, biologists, retired teachers, and pet dog enthusiasts to name a few. The course layout was fantastic. We worked in 50 minute increments with 10 minute breaks in between which kept me energized throughout the day. Over the course of 4 days, we worked on clicker training mechanics, timing and delivery, observation, capturing, shaping, targeting, and discrimination. We also touched on the importance of record keeping and the principles of TAGteach. We worked on our coaching skills as we paired up with a partner when we worked the chickens, (thank goodness for extra back up in case I got violently pecked. I was paranoid, ok?). With the 2 chickens I was assigned to, I worked on targeting and discrimination with one chicken (#9), and the other chicken who was not an ideal candidate for targeting, was taught to walk across a balance beam instead, (how fitting with the name "Double O Seven").
Chicken #9 was an all star pecker. This video was taken on the last day of chicken camp. #9 is learning to discriminate between coloured poker chips. Fact: Chickens can see colour. She has only been reinforced for pecking the red, and continues to do so even when other coloured chips are added. Note that at :19 of the video, my ninja fast partner Laura took away the red chip and for a few seconds, #9 was looking for the red chip but did not peck any other colour. Ninja Laura puts the red chip back and #9 immediately pecks the red chip and carries on. Fact: None of these chickens were previously trained. The only training they received prior to the start of the workshop was some classical conditioning and desensitization to being in and out of the cages, and to accept human handling.
Pretty darn cool, eh?
OH! And another cool thing I learned? Hens with white ears lay white eggs. Hens with brown or pigmented ears lay brown eggs. The more you know <insert flying star>.
As training camp came to an end, I was sad to leave. I was sad to leave the group of girls that I had just gotten to know over the course of the week. I was sad to leave my chickens and made sure I gave them each a nice neck scratch and an encouraging pep talk as they were staying for another week to work with new trainers in the advanced camp, (ok, now you can justifiably call me crazy).
What a fantastic and one of a kind experience. I left with a new appreciation for my own dog and realized how muddy criteria and sloppy timing can really throw off our training at times. Luckily she doesn't have wings or she probably would've wing slapped me multiple times and flown off to "To Heck With You, Lady!" Land.
Big thanks to Lisbeth Plant and her wonderful staff at Cowichan Canine for providing such a great venue and for the delicious lunches!! And giant sour keys. They provided a tub of giant sour keys. And a bowl of Werther's. My dentist would also like to thank you as well.