To change the behavior of the trainer,
try training a chicken!

This summer, my friend Laurie Higgins attended two weeks of operant conditioning workshops with Bob Bailey and Parvene Farhoody. The workshops teach participants about operant conditioning and the science of animal training using chickens.

Bob Bailey, along with Marian Bailey, began giving operant conditioning workshops to the general public in the mid-1990s. The workshops were based on the teaching programs used by Animal Behavior Enterprises to train the organization’s staff and clients. (The first operant conditioning teaching workshop with chickens was conducted by Marian and Keller Breland in 1947 with a group of six General Mills feed salesmen!) For more about the history of the workshops, I encourage you to visit this page.

For the past several years, Bob Bailey has only conducted these workshops for the public in Sweden. Many animal trainers are thrilled that he is now offering these workshops again in the United States.

My friend Laurie attended two weeks of workshops, which covered the topics of discrimination and cueing. Here is a video of one of Laurie’s chickens. What you will see in the video is called the “Go Out” exercise.

The bird has learned to go touch a target at the other end of the table. However, she has also learned to wait for the cue to tell her when to go. The bird does not go to touch the target until Laurie holds out the red reflector.

Watch on YouTube: “Go out” chicken workshop training exercise


Laurie has been very generous in sharing her thoughts and notes from the workshops online and was kind enough to let me ask her a few questions about her experiences at the workshops. I hope you enjoy her reflections regarding spending two weeks training chickens!

Mary: Why do you think horse trainers should train chickens?

Laurie: First, I think all experience is helpful, no matter what the species. Second, I think having experience with more than one species is also very helpful. Some things translate between species and some things have to be “customized” for a different species.

For example, predators are used to chasing their food. Horses are prey and their food is always underfoot, so they’re not used to chasing their food. So, in that respect, food delivery is different for horses. Chickens are BOTH predator AND prey, which I think is really interesting. They search for bugs and worms to eat so they sort of hunt for food. They will chase the food cup during training which can be really helpful or a real hindrance depending on what you’re training.

Chickens are REALLY fast – fast to move, fast to train, fast to get it right, and fast to get it wrong. But if you go wrong, you can fairly quickly change it to right if you change your own behavior. And that was the key thing about the Chicken Workshop – changing my own behavior.

Mary: What were some of the most interesting or thought-provoking thing you learned?

Laurie: Oh, there were several of those as well. Behavioral economics was one. One concept we discussed is the concept that different reinforcers have different values depending on how far away they are. Animals will spend as much time with each source of food based on how easy is it to get.

There might be a really high-value reinforcer available, but it’s rather far away and it costs the animal time and energy to get it. That expenditure of time and energy lowers the value of the reinforcer. How can we use that to our advantage in training? For example, if a chicken is pecking off to the right of the center of the target, deliver the food reinforcer in the opposite direction (to the left) of the center of the target, making the chicken move some distance and away from where she was pecking. At some point, she’ll split the difference and both of you can be more accurate in clicking the behavior you want. As Bob Bailey often says, “Click for behavior, feed for position.”

Another thing that was interesting to me is the “Matching Law” by R. Herrnstein. The Matching Law states: “The relative frequency of responding closely approximates the relative frequency of reinforcement.” So, an animal will do a behavior more frequently if that behavior usually leads to reinforcement and do a behavior less frequently or rarely at all if that behavior does not usually lead to reinforcement. This sounds deceptively simple and rather obvious.

But, if you’re sloppy about what you’re reinforcing, the “bad” clicks/reinforcements start to heavily outweigh the “good” clicks/reinforcements. Sort of like getting several failing grades on quizzes, but now you have to catch up and get perfect scores to outweigh the bad scores at the end of the school term. It’s really hard to make up!

Mary: What was the hardest part about the workshop?

Laurie: Actually, there were a couple of things that were difficult. One difficulty for me was being able to really see where the chicken was pecking!

However, dealing with stress was probably the biggest difficulty. As much as Bob Bailey and Parvene Farhoody said that we weren’t in a competition and that the fate of Western Civilization did not hang in the balance, we all still wanted to do well and to succeed.

I was in two five-day workshops and the first one was the most stressful for me. However, once I failed my first “evaluation,” the pressure was off. There was significantly less need to “prove” myself to anyone. After that, it was just a matter of getting the job done.

Mary: Laurie is currently training the “Go out” exercise (featured in the video clip at the beginning of this post), to one of her horses, Atticus. They are doing great so far with this training. I find it so remarkable and wonderful that the same training principles and exercises can be used with a creature as small as a chicken or as large as a horse. If you’re interested in seeing their progress, you can follow along on Laurie’s YouTube channel.

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