And why you should
Today was day one of my multi-species clicker training effort. I started with the two chicks that are currently taking up residence in my garage. They are about a month old.
The first question is why train a chicken at all? And indeed, I currently have over a dozen chickens, none of whom come when called, can sit, or walk on a loose leash. House training is completely out of the question. Chickens will live their whole lives quite contentedly without ever learning their name.
So the benefit of training a chicken is on the trainer, not the trainee.
If the chicken gets nothing out of it (unless they get to show off their cool tricks to their fellow chickens, after all, who knows what secret lives chickens lead when they are left unattended?), then it is only the trainer (in this case, me) who benefits.
What benefit is there to a dog trainer in training a chicken? And why clicker training?
Clicker training is used all over the world to teach animals ranging from emus to Elephants, and all sorts of scaled, feathered and furry critters in between. It is a remarkably powerful tool capable of creating amazing results in a short time with animals of all species.
Many folks use only clicker training in conjunction with free shaping (waiting for tiny variations towards the ultimate behavioral goal) exclusively to train their dogs. The reason for this is that clicker training , when done right, is very clean. There is no voice nuance, no body clues, nothing for the dog to go on but the clues (essentially Red Light Green Light) given by the clicker. Virtually all animals trained for TV and the movies are clicker trained.
Many people do not have the patience or skills to fully train their dog using only clickers. We get impatient, and there are very fast, effective, positive reward-based methods that do not take as long or demand as much from the learner or trainer.
Trainers can be pretty messy when working with dogs. Dogs will work hard to train themselves, and watch us constantly for tiny clues and change their behavior accordingly. Dogs are invested in the learning process to some degree, and will make accommodations for poor or sloppy training. (think of all the things that your dog does that you never actually trained it to do but that streamline your lives together) A mediocre trainer can get along fairly well training dogs.
The chickens will not be so forgiving! If I want a trained chicken, I need to be a very good trainer. My chickens will gain new clues from my face, my tone, my body language, or any other silent giveaways that horses and dogs can pick up and often do to help bridge the gaps in our message.
If my training is a muddy mess, my chickens will simply walk away, untrained.
How did the first day of chicken training go?
Not as planned.
They rejected the first four food items I offered them (Mealworms (gross! - I wore gloves!), dried blueberries, almond slivers, canned corn) They ended up only liking the tiny grains that settle out of the rat food, so, after all these failures, they had given up trusting that I would be giving them anything of value, so they stopped taking it from my hand. (Sophia Yin recommends using a cup - I'll be switching to that method)
It is my understanding that it can take a while for the chickens to understand that click = food. So, today was all about that. And probably the next day, and the next day after that.
If you've never trained a dog using a marker, try this right now, sit down with a bunch of treats or kibble, and say a short one-syllable word and follow after the count of two with a treat. See how many repetitions it takes for the dog to anticipate the treat (most dogs get in in under 10 repetitions). If you have a parrot or a cat, try it with them too (I've never tried it with either, so you'll have to tell me how it goes!)
Here's a short video of our first day of training