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.


  1. Fun!

    The Brelands and Baileys did such awesome training. I wish more people knew about it. They were definitely ahead of their time.

    I would love to read more about your chicken clicker training experiences. :)

    Eventually, I would really like to get a few chickens and try my hand at training them, but I think I'm going to have to wait until I'm not living in an apartment! For now, though, I have lots of fun clicker training my pet rats.

    I have a "What is Clicker Training" article that I wrote over the summer--you are welcome to link to it / share it if you have blog readers who want more info about the basics of clicker training.

    Also, I've tried to make the article multi-species, but just realized that I don't have any bird pictures on it right now. If you in the future get any good photos of your chickens being clicker trained, I'd love to include one in my article. :)



    1. Amazing article Mary! Thank you for sharing it! I'll be sure to link it up! I agree with you. People often times fail to recognize the behavioral science behind learning and just chalk it up to a fad or luck. Psychology is behind darn near everything folks! You just have to want to see it (and dissect it and analyze it). Thank you again Mary! :)

    2. I just checked out Roo's website. He looks like an amazing dog! That is too cool that he (and you) are helping kids learn to read. :)