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It just takes a click, a peck and a very smart chicken
Need tips on training your dog? Here’s one:
Get a chicken.
Animal trainer Giene Keyes has spent decades teaching pets good manners, but it’s only since Easter — when her family brought home five baby chicks — that she’s learned just how smart a hen can be.
In the process, she’s also discovered how training a chicken makes it easier to teach an old dog new tricks.
With patience, repetition and something called “operant conditioning,” Keyes has taught two of her young hens how to distinguish patterns and find the center of a target. They’ve been trained to recognize colors, circle a cone, and go into a dog crate, turn around and sit down.
And they’ve learned how to refrain from — you know what.
“Oh yes, you can potty-train a chicken,” Keyes said.
Keyes passed along some of her techniques and tips at her “Chicken Clicker Training Seminar” Sunday at Cluck the Chicken Store in Paoli. The crowd of 50 people was evenly split between “chicken people” and “dog people.”
And a few crossovers, too, like Christina Klock of Fitchburg.
“I have both dogs and chickens, so this was perfect,” Klock said after the demonstration. “My chickens need a little training” — like obeying their owner’s command when it’s time to head into the coop.
Klock’s is among a growing number of Madison-area households with backyard chickens. The birds provide fresh eggs and, for the many owners who regard them as part of the family, endless entertainment with their singular personalities.
It’s personality, not breed, that probably counts most in the trainability of a chicken, said Heather Lockhart of Albion, who has raised chickens for more than 25 years and presented many at poultry shows. She and a pet rooster stopped by Cluck to hear Keyes’ presentation.
Familiarity with chicken training comes in handy when, say, it’s time to give a chicken a bath, Lockhart explained.
With chicken training, “you don’t need TV,” Keyes said during her talk. “You can spend your time training your animals. It’s lots of fun.”
Keyes uses “clicker training” in teaching both chickens and dogs (and horses, among other animals). When the animal performs a desired behavior, such as sitting down or touching a target, it’s rewarded with the click of a clicker and then a treat. The clicker (part of “operant conditioning”) reinforces the behavior.
Chickens are so fast at responding that they in turn train the trainer, Keyes said.
For dog people, working with chickens “helps your observation and timing (and sharpens) your focus on keeping the animal engaged,” she said.
Keyes uses a clicker with her birds that is quieter than clickers for dogs. It’s attached to a measuring cup filled with delectable treats such as mealworms. For her demonstration, Keyes used an added incentive: crumbled ground beef.
Keyes does most of her chicken-training in her garage, but at Cluck she opened a dog crate to bring out featured performer Feathers, a 5-and-a-half-month-old Andalusian. Feathers, Keyes explained, is a “star bird,” very calm and “extremely intelligent.”
Indeed, Feathers appeared nonplussed by the crowd of humans and even the crowing of Lockhart’s rooster off to the side. With Keyes’ guidance, she distinguished between three colored squares that her trainer laid before her. Even as the squares were moved around, Feathers knew that pecking the green one would get her a click and a snack.
Feathers was followed by Sam, a more energetic bird who entertained the crowd with her ability to follow a clicker around a bright orange cone.
“They enjoy it,” said Keyes, noting that when she’s training one of her chickens at home, the other gets fussy because it’s not getting the same attention (and treats).
Cluck owner Susan Troller calls Keyes’ work “fascinating” and said she will host a “Clicker Camp” this winter where chicken owners can bring their own hens and learn how to train them.
“I believe it expands the range of what we know about communicating with animals,” Troller said. “If you can communicate like that with a chicken.... It has changed my idea about ‘bird brains’ — that there’s a lot more going on there than people give them credit for.”
A professional dog trainer and behavior specialist, Keyes is owner of Dog Face, LLC (dogfacepet.com) and formerly ran a doggie day care. One of her current clients is Gillian Way, who stopped by Keyes’ chicken training to pick up more tips in dealing with her dog, Artie.
The two-year-old pit bull spent the first half of his life in an animal shelter, and has required intensive training in basic obedience and building trust in people, Way said.
She found it interesting that Keyes talked about heaping praise on dogs while training them — and how all those “Good boys!” could actually be a distraction. The praise can interrupt the dog’s training — while training a chicken is far more “mechanical” and focused.
Way said she’ll keep that in mind for Artie.
“It might be an idea we can bring home.”