Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Poultry in Motion: Chicken Training with Terry Ryan

I recently had the privilege of hosting legendary dog trainer Terry Ryan in Hawaii.  Terry has been a dog trainer for almost four decades and is the author of many books including Toolbox for Building a Great Family Dog and Coaching People To Train Their Dogs, a book that dog trainers study to prepare for their certification.  Besides being an accomplished dog trainer, Terry is famous for her chicken camps.

Why would anyone want to train a chicken, you ask?  Well, for one thing, chickens are incredibly fast.  So your timing and coordination skills are quickly improved.  Also, chickens will freeze or fly away if they don't like the way you are training them. Unlike dogs, you will know immediately if you are taking advantage of a chicken or pushing too hard too fast. Chickens don't give their trainers second chances as often as dogs do. (Excerpt from Legacy Canine website)

In Terry's chicken workshops, we used the clicker as a training tool.  A clicker is a little box that, when pressed, makes a distinctive clicking noise that is quite audible to the animal.  It serves as a marker for the correct behavior, which is followed by a reward such as food.  The animal, in this case a chicken, learns to associate the sound of the clicker with a reward.  If a verbal marker or clicker is not used, the chicken would not know what behavior is being rewarded.  The laws of learning dictate that any regularly rewarded behavior will increase in frequency.
Above: Clicker cup with cracked corn, a high-value reward for a hungry chicken!

In part 1 of Terry's Poultry in Motion workshop, we practiced the shaping of behavior.  Shaping means that you "gradually teach new behavior through the use of reinforcement until the target behavior is achieved (Wolfgang 272)."  In our case, the target behavior was the chicken pecking a red poker chip on the table.  We started by clicking and treating any approach or look towards the chip, until we were eventually able to get the chickens to peck the actual chips.

Above: Terry clicks and rewards the chicken for looking at the red chip.
Shaping is a common way to train behaviors in dogs, whether it's a pet dog, service dog or search and rescue dog.  An example is the "Go To Your Bed" behavior.  At first, you might reward the dog for placing one paw on his bed.  Then you would wait for a little more from the dog, such as 2 paws on the bed, then all 4 paws, and eventually the entire dog on the bed in a Down position.

When shaping, an animal isn't "told" what to do.  Rather, the animal tries different behaviors, which may or may not be "correct." As a trainer, you have to walk the fine line between keeping the animal curious and guessing, while not frustrating the animal too much.  That's why it's important to keep the rate of reinforcement high enough (in other words, to reward the animal enough). 

With dogs, the worst that can happen if they don't get rewarded enough is that they get bored and lose interest in the training.  Chickens on the other hand, will get scared and fly off the training table!  Working with chickens was a good reminder to keep training sessions short and to keep the them motivated.

On the other hand, we also learned that too much reinforcement can have a downside too.

THE 80/20 RULE
While shaping the chickens we witnessed what is commonly called the 80/20 Rule.  Once a chicken or dog is successful at doing something 80% of the time, it's time to raise the criteria, or make things a little harder.  Otherwise, the animal might get stuck at the previous step.  We saw this happen when a chicken got repeatedly rewarded for just looking at the poker chip.  To put it anthropomorphically, the chicken was saying, "Why should I peck the chip if I'm getting yummy corn for just looking at the chip?"  In the "Go To The Bed" example, a dog might get stuck at putting only one paw on the bed because the trainer never raised the criteria before rewarding the dog.

We also taught the chickens to discriminate between the different colored poker chips.  Our goal was to have our chicken peck the red chip only, even if there were green (and later yellow) chips around.  We first reinforced the chickens heavily for pecking at the red chip.  We then slowly introduced a green chip by placing it at the edge of the table, and eventually in the center of the table near the red chip, thus setting the chicken up for success. We were instructed by Terry to make it easy for the chicken at first, so she would do the "right" behavior, rather than making it too hard from the start and and having to "correct" the wrong behavior (something we often do with our pet dogs).

A few times we inadvertently made things too difficult for the chicken.  We placed the green chip too close to her so that she didn't know whether to peck the red or green chip.  Whenever the chicken did the "wrong" thing, Terry instructed us to remove the possibility of reinforcement (in this case, we picked up the red chip).  What happened next was very interesting.  The chicken started to peck the green chip (wrong one) really hard and fast, until she eventually gave up and stopped.  This is called an extinction burst, and is the temporary increase of a behavior followed by the eventual extinction of that behavior.

In a dog, you might witness it with demand barking.  Let's say your dog has a habit of barking at you so that you'll give him a treat.  Maybe one day you decide that enough is enough and you are no longer going to give in to your dog's barking demands.  Your dog may bark harder than ever as a last ditch effort ("She used to give me treats when I barked...what's going on?  Maybe she doesn't hear me!  Bark! Bark!")  During that time, you may be tempted to give him a treat to quiet him down.  Just know that the demand barking will extinguish itself if you don't reinforce it!

I recommend Terry Ryan's chicken workshops to anyone who is remotely interested in training animals, whether you're a dog trainer or a pet dog owner.  Dog trainers will gain the experience of training a new species and witnessing familiar training concepts up close.  Dog owners will learn these new concepts in a unique training environment, and will be able to apply them to their own dogs at home.

I will write another blog soon about Part 2 of the chicken workshop, where we learned about chained behaviors using chicken agility!

For more information about Terry's chicken camps, please visit:

All photos were taken by my "poultographer" husband Tor Johnson.  Visit his website at:


  1. great..nice posting and publishing by you...appreciate on you...thanks for giving detail..


  2. On your search, also ensure that the first ingredient is not a grain, tuber, or vegetable, such as ground corn. Just because corn (when ground) is digestible, does not mean it has high nutritional value. Corn has low protein and unimpressive vitamin and mineral content, and the only reason manufacturers boast about this carbohydrate is because it’s inexpensive. By no means is corn “bad” for dogs–just don’t fall for advertising that advocates its nutritional benefits.