Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Clicker Chick: Introduction to Clicker Training a Chicken

You didn't misread  that.  I really said ‘clicker training a chicken’ just now.  You may be familiar with the concept of clicker training a dog, as the training method has really taken off in the last decade.  But the connection to a well trained Fido and your backyard flock isn't that far apart!

For those of you who don’t know, or would like to become more familiar with the training method, here are the very bare bones basics in a nutshell.  Clicker training is a term for a variation in operant conditioning, a method of modifying behavior so that an action is specifically linked to a positive (or negative) feeling/sensation so as to increase (or decrease) the likelihood of being repeated.  This is not to be confused with classical conditioning, another method of modifying behavior so that a formerly neutral stimulus becomes coupled with a desired behavior after repetitive exposure to the unconditioned stimulus eliciting a desired response.  Confused?  Let’s give a few examples.

Positive Operant Conditioning:
The dog sits.  Clicker noise sounds.  Dog receives treat.  Repeat.  Dog associates: Sit + Click = Treat.  The dog learns over repetition and keeps working to get more clicks/treats.

Negative Operant Conditioning:
You install an invisible fence to your property, complete with those adorable yard flags, and equip Fido with a collar.  Fido see’s a squirrel on the neighbor’s property and decides to eradicate it for them.  He hits the property line and receives a shock.  Repeat situations may occur.  Dog associates: Running off the property + Electric shock = Do not leave yard.  The dog learns the consequences of leaving his yard and, in the owners hopes, does not attempt to roam again.  (don’t ask me my opinion/experience with invisible fences though…that’s a whole other matter!)

Positive Classical Conditioning:
Think Pavlov’s dogs, a study with amazing results that never intended to go that way!  A very condensed version of his study on the salivary reactions of dogs showed the following results.  When the dogs were provided a neutral stimulus (a bell ringing) before a positive response to that occurred (being fed), in time the dogs began to drool simply by hearing the bell ring.  They learned:  Bell = Food.  They anticipated a positive response from a formerly neutral stimulus due to their exposure/experiences.

Negative Classical Conditioning:
Do you know a dog who is terrified of thunderstorms?  Essentially, they have classically conditioned themselves to be afraid of thunderstorms.  They experience a thunderstorm to a higher degree than we do; sights, smells and sounds are greatly magnified – and super scary!  If they have a close enough bond with a human who is afraid of storms, they can even pick up their emotions as well.  So they may begin to associate something, like the roll of thunder (or similar sounding noise) or a flash of lightening (or similar visual) with an impending storm.  They learn:  Sound/Visual = long, scary storm is coming.  Before you know it they are cowering in the corner of your closet.

     Summing that Up:
  • Operant Conditioning:  Repeated Behavior + Repeated Reinforcement (click) = Repeated Action
  • Classical Conditioning:  Repeated Action = Repeated Experience/Perception + Repeated New Behavior

So how does this apply to chickens, you ask?  A group of people who innovated the very study and concepts of Operant Conditioning made astonishing breakthroughs training  – wait for it – chickens!  B.F. Skinner, Keller Breland and Marian Breland-Bailey (and all those who followed in their esteemed footsteps) applied the methods of operant conditioning with many species of animals, but they perfected their skills on chickens.  Why?  We’ve all seen just how quickly a chicken can move.  We have also witnessed how quickly they can grow tired of something and have an attention span shift to something else.  These animals are perfect for training a person’s response time and ability, not to mention that the treat hungry species is nearly always willing to work for food!

Chickens were so successful in their training program that they became part of a traveling show in which they showcased their tricks and abilities.  The birds would do simple tasks like pecking a target, all the way up to far more sophisticated things like walking a tightrope, doing ‘treasure hunts’, playing a baseball-like game, turning on a jukebox and dancing, and playing the piano!  Now I have a question for you.  Don’t YOU want a chicken that plays the piano?

This "Clucking Calculator" could answer a mathematical question for which the solution was a number 0-5

Casey and her team were all big hits at the animal shows

 People could have their "fortunes" read by the chickens

 Tina the Truck Driving Chicken was another big star
(I've got to show support for another Tina!)

In the Show, chickens defied death, ok...maybe just very small heights

A Barred Rock beauty rocks out

Now that you have an idea where I’m coming from, you’ll see that I’m not (completely) mad when I aspire to have a few clicker chicks in my flock.  Where do I go from here?  I’ve begun my training with the chicks and I will blog about our progress to let you know how it is going.  I’ll share our experiences and let you know how I’ve strategized a training plan for them, and for myself.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed that it works.  I can already picture myself being serenaded to Bach by a Barred Rock!

Check out the Dancing Chicken!

Home Run, Casey!

Nobody Drives like Tina the Chicken!

An animal run newspaper?  It could happen!

**Photo and Videos from: IQ Zoo**
Click on their Exhibit's page to see more photo's and video of incredible animals talents
I dare you to visit and not smile!

Disclaimer:  I am not a training professional.  I have experience and have the desire to learn more and do more, that is all.  I recognize the terms I highlighted above (operant and classical conditioning) are far more complex than I explained.  These are simply brief explanations of the behavior modification systems that I have provided.  I encourage anyone who is interested in learning more to do some research and read up on these fascinating subjects.  (I'd be happy to recommend some wonderful books!)  For a wonderful article on clicker training concepts, please visit What is Clicker Training by Mary Hunter of the awesome animal behavior blog Stale Cheerios.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Getting Started (kick starting this blog!)

I've neglected writing this blog, as I hoped I would do along the way.  Better late than never comes my new start to this, so here we go...

Where exactly do I start with "Getting Started?"  It's hard for me to know exactly.  Maybe I should tell you about the coop we planned on rebuilding?  Perhaps I should tell you about the chicks I ordered and picked up late this spring.  Instead, I will start with my impression of chickens prior to my research bonanza these last few months.

Chickens were a subject that had been brought up by my husband, Mike, more than a few times.  He had been raised on a little farm, brought up to be self sufficient and knew how to both work with and reap the benefits of livestock.  Besides cattle and goats, he had been raised around a variety of different chickens - though he says he would be hard pressed to tell you what kinds they were.  Instead he remembers their names and personalities with a smile.  Pizza, his brothers favorite chicken, who could (and often would) find a place up high to fly and perch.  It was nothing to look up in tree tops or on the peak of the barn roof and find Pizza up there.  I think my husband's favorite was a little chicken with the crossbeak.  She made herself quite memorable with her comical nature and unique look.  He can rattle off at least a dozen names of the little feathered friends that graced his childhood and says that he liked them all.

My experiences were much less warm and fuzzy.  The only chickens I knew came in 4 different ways: the silkie chickens at the horse barn who were more like little fuzzy cats who squawked and protested when touched.  Then there were the chickens allowed to free range, who often wandered out into the country roads I travel.  A honk of the horn would send them skittering back onto their property for safety and left me driving on with my heart in my throat.  Never forgotten is the chicken I knew indirectly; the one that attacked my sister.  Yes, while she was house sitting, she went out to do the requested feeding duties asked of her only to be thanked by a decent sized Leghorn rooster slicing and dicing her back.  The fourth kind of chicken I knew, and was most familiar with, came on my dinner plate.

After repeated requests by my husband, my then 7 year old daughter decided to jump on the bandwagon.  She had just started her second year as a 4-H Cloverbud and we were reviewing the potential projects she could do next year.  Without any hesitation, she said she wanted a chicken.  Outnumbered and slighty discouraged, I began my research.  We decided that we should all have some experience under our belts before she would take a bird to show at fair next summer, so our best bet was to get some chicks this spring and get used to handling them, caring for them and (gulp) bonding with them.

Several books, multiple magazines, websites galore and a friendly facebook group (hello FED!!!) or two later, I feel a bit more educated and comfortable with the idea of chickens in our backyard.  I read up on the different breeds and made a list of those said to be friendly and easily handled.  From that list, each of us selected 3 breeds each of pullets (female chicks)  that I would order from Meyer Hatchery, a nearby hatchery, in early June.  The lineup is as follows:

      Meredith's Picks 
      (my daughter)
  • Silver Laced Wyandotte
  • Red Speckled Sussex
  • Wellsummer
       Mike's Picks 
      (my husband)
  • Rhode Island Red
  • Partridge Rock
  • Barred Rock
      My Picks
  • Orpington
  • Ameraucana/Easter Egger
  • Australorp
It seems like a decent group.  At maturity, we'll have a nice range of colors and personalities - not to mention a nice group of egg layers.  No, we will not be using any of the girls for meat purposes.  I just don't think I'm at that point.  Maybe in another year we will be able to get a few for meat, but I could already see how that would play out with Meredith and I.  Mike would have two hysterical females sitting in the dirt, sobbing, while rocking armfuls of chickens.  Our first batch of chick's put to the knife?  Forget about it!  They are keepers!

Now for the coop we planned on refurbishing...yep, it's not really pretty.  That was my very first impression.  So I was relieved when my husband came in after a few hours of work outside and decided that the refurbished coop plan was no more.  Instead, he agreed to a collaboration of our ideas - of course, he scaled mine down a considerable amount.  He said the chickens couldn't have a bigger house than we do.  Sheesh!  My husband is about the handiest guy you could ever meet and I have zero doubts in my mind that he'll make the plans we agreed upon come to life.  Granted, it won't be the white washed, gable roofed dream I'd envision...but it will serve quite nicely for start.  I planned on keeping a photo journal of the progress made but it turns out that was a bit more tricky than I'd expected.  It's hard to work and hold a camera!

The coop is finished and I couldn't be more pleased with it...unless of course it came on a bigger plot of land and doubled in size.  The little fuzzies that we picked up on June 4 are all growing up now into varying shades of the birds I'd read they would become.   That is another post for another time.  I've got a few more weeks of chicken ownership under my belt now and I'm a bit more at ease.  I still have a lot more to learn and questions arise with each new behavior or antic I witness.  It is just so very fortunate that I have found some good, knowledgeable friends that are willing to share their advice and adventures with a newbie like me.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Homemade Treats for Chickens

Everyone loves homemade goodies.  Be it a good old fashioned meal made from scratch, or a sweet cake, pie, cookies or my personal favorite - brownies.  You just can't beat the smell that fills up your house and the sweet taste of satisfaction when the job is done right.

I've been admiring people who make such wondrous creations for their birds.  Prior to this I'd tried a very well loved and flock endorsed meatloaf recipe from the Facebook page and blog of Fresh Eggs Daily. Lisa's molt meatloaf was such a success that I decided to try to throw together a recipe of my own.  As follows are the results of that adventure: Homemade Chicken Treat Balls.  (see pictures below)

1 cup crumbles                                                                    
½ cup cornmeal
½ cup wheat germ                                                              
2 cups oats
1 tbsp cinnamon                                                                 
1 tbsp powdered milk
½ tsp baking powder                                                          
½ tsp nutmeg
½ cup honey                                                                        
½ cup natural unsweetened applesauce
1 tbsp molasses                                                                   
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp water                                                                         
1 egg
½ cup raisins                                                                        
½ cup craisins
½ cup shelled roasted sunflower seeds

Preheat oven to 330 degrees Fahrenheit.  Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl.  Firmly press full the scoop of an ice cream scooper with your hand.  Place on a greased cookie sheet.  (Alternatively, can be pressed into a muffin tin instead of balling with an ice cream scooper onto a cookie sheet.)  Bake for 40 minutes.  Allow to cool and harden or crumble into smaller pieces while still slightly warm.

Dry Ingredients

Wet Ingredients

Raisins, Craisins and Sunflower Seeds

Mix It Up

Scoop It

Bake It

Cool It


Vixey says "Got any more?!"