For Chuck - How to train a chicken

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Excerpt: "Tired of trying to teach your old dog a new trick? Try training a chicken instead.

The Avian Medical Center in Lake Oswego began offering their popular "Clickin' Chicken" training classes in May 2008, and people have been flocking to them ever since.

The class, which will be offered for the sixth time next month, offers positive reinforcement methods that teach chickens to jump through a hoop, step up onto a person’s hand, distinguish colors and other fun tricks.

Why chickens, you ask?

The practice began as a way to teach dog trainers how to hone their skills, and it’s a nice way to offer enrichment to city chickens. The bird lovers at Avian Medical Center also wanted to offer the class as a way to disprove the misconception that chickens are “dumb” animals, says Lisa Ewing, Avian Medical Center’s “head chicken trainer.”

“One of the reasons chickens are good for clicker training is because they move really fast,” she says. “You have to have really good timing. If you can do it with a chicken, you can go to a dog or horse or an animal that moves a lot slower. They’re good teachers, beyond just being fun to work with.”

The concept of training chickens is credited to renowned animal trainers Marian Breland Bailey and Bob Bailey, who made their living training all kinds of animals.

Dog trainer Terry Ryan, who owns Legacy Canine Behavior & Training in Sequim, Wash., pioneered the practice of using chickens to help dog trainers back in 1989. (She recruited the Baileys out of retirement to teach the chicken unit at Ryan’s training school for five years).

Ewing and her colleague Kelly Ballance, who teaches the scientific portion of the class, recently offered Pet Talk some insight into how their classes work.

To start, they first choose chickens that exhibit curiosity and an interest in her environment. Slayer, a pale yellow 4-week-old Buff Orpington who tucks her head down from the safety of Ewing’s hand to peck at her ring, meets the criteria.

The clinic staff occasionally takes the chickens out for treats and gets them used to being around humans. If a chicken is scared, she won’t make a good candidate for training.

Roosters don’t work so well. Aside from the fact that they’re not permitted in most residential communities, they’re also aggressive.

They accustom the hens to eating out of a cup. Ewing typically offers a mix of crushed Goldfish crackers, Cheerios, finch seeds and mealworms. The chickens are highly food-motivated and can usually eat a lot at one time. They store the food in the crop, a pouch below their throat.

Then Ewing gradually accustoms her pupils to connect food with the sound of the clicker, a small device with a button that makes a snapping sound when clicked.

“By pairing that click with the food, the association is built in their brain that the click means food,” Ballance explains.

After a series of repetitions, the chicken has learned to connect food with the sound of the clicker and you can start training.

Ewing then begins with a ‘target,’ which is basically a Wiffle ball at the end of a stick.

The target acts almost as a leash that controls the bird without being attached to it. Each time Slayer looks toward the target, for instance, Ewing clicks the clicker and offers her a treat.

Eventually, she’ll use the target to do other tricks, such as lead the chicken to jump through a hoop. Then instead of clicking when the bird hits the target, Ewing will click once the bird begins to move through the hoop.

Beaverton resident Bob Puckett has attended several of the Clickin’ Chicken classes. A software engineer for Xerox, he enjoys animal training as a hobby and likes to think of himself as a “high-end amateur.”

In a previous training session, Puckett managed to teach a chicken to “bowl” by hitting a bowling ball and knocking over pins.

“The main advantage is that a chicken doesn’t get tired of training as quickly as a dog would,” he says.

Some animals get tired after only a few moments, he says, but chickens will continue to work until their crop gets full.

Puckett, who owns dogs but not chickens, also appreciates the precision involved in training the plucky birds. Because you’re prepared to react more quickly to reward the behavior you want to reinforce, it helps training with any animal go much faster.

The positive reinforcement methods are effective no matter which species you’re trying to train.

“You can’t whack a killer whale on the nose with a newspaper and expect a good result,” Puckett says. “And it’s the same with a chicken.”

Roberta Cobb, a volunteer at the Oregon Humane Society, decided to enroll in the Clickin’ Chicken class in 2009. She provides foster care for dogs, had recently adopted chickens and read about clicker training, so she thought the class was a nice combination of her interests.

Now, she says her skills come in very handy at night when she rounds up her three hens to come to their indoor coop.

At the sound of the clicker, “they come running at full speed, which is hilarious to watch,” says Cobb.

She’s even been able to apply the positive reinforcement skills to teach her cat to sit on command.

“For the cat, I don’t use the clicker, but it’s the same idea of rewarding the behavior right at the right instant,” Cobb says. “That’s the key of clicker training – you need to reward the instant they get it and to make that connection.”

Despite the increasing popularity of chickens, training classes are still relatively few and far between.

“Very few other people are doing it, but the courses that I have are usually booked six to seven months in advance,” Ryan says.

The classes at Avian Medical Center, which usually accommodate about 16 people (no chickens, please), tend to fill up fast. If you miss out on the April 28 class, don’t worry – they expect to offer another one in October.

More info.: A Clickin’ Chicken class presented by the Avian Medical Center will be 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on Saturday, April 28. Cost: $30; call 503-635-5672 to register. Participants should leave pets at home. More info.: "

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