Of all the education I’ve experienced in becoming and being a dog trainer, the one that stands out most is what’s known as “Chicken Camp.” More properly called “Cross-Species Operant Conditioning Training Workshop” (you can see why people prefer to call it Chicken Camp), this workshop teaches advanced, high-quality clicker training skills to the human students. The training subjects are chickens: all hens, in fact. Each student works with one naive bird, who’s only been working Chicken Camp for 1-2 years, and one experienced bird who may have 6 or 8 years of Camp under her feathers. Chicken Camp’s format evolved over the dozen-plus years of its existence, and the four sessions I took (the complete curriculum) were Discrimination, Cueing and Criteria, Chaining, and Teaching Operant Conditioning. Instructor Bob Bailey has also given shorter, more condensed workshops at other locations.
Bob Bailey (and, before their respective deaths, Marian Breland Bailey and Keller Breland) spent many decades operating Animal Behavior Enterprises, a company originally started in the 1940s with the crazy idea of applying Skinner’s research to practical situations. ABE worked in military, commercial and academic contexts, training 15,000 animals of over 140 species during its four-plus decades in business. Using almost exclusively positive reinforcement, ABE made a profit training animals (and teaching people to train animals).
At Chicken Camp, some of the hens are — ahem — more assertive than others. Some of the more skittish humans found this offputting! We’d alternate time in the training room with time in the lecture room. In the training room, we’d take one hen out of her cage, set her on the table, and perform the training task of the moment. Then we’d rapidly switch hens. Clean technique, careful record keeping, and pinpoint observation skills were stressed. Before we were allowed to touch a clicker, we practiced delivering food to imaginary hens: First with an empty cup, then with a cup containing the food the hens would receive. Then we worked with a clicker and a full cup… still no chicken, though! Not until the second half of the first day were we introduced to and allowed to work with our chickens.
Chickens are ideal training subjects for refining your training skills. They are very fast moving and very literal; also, they can eat a huge amount in one day, so you can perform a great many repetitions. At the end of the day, their crops were like baseballs! They are also easy to keep safely and comfortably all summer in a training facility (a hotel parking lot, actually). Hens don’t care about praise or petting and they are not interested in human attention or approval. They are working for their food. You have to be precise and clear. You learn that “You get what you click, not what you intend.” If you click her for pecking a centimeter away from the target, she will consistently peck a centimeter away from the target. Most dogs will actually try to figure out what you want, and will pick up your frustration if you are making training mistakes; they pick up an awful lot of slack. Hens pick up no slack! And if you forget to feed them after clicking, some of the more seasoned ones will jump up and peck your arm. They are tough taskmistresses.
Chickens may not be intellectual geniuses, so perhaps the fact that they were able to learn some very complex tasks demonstrates the power of this training technology. I will talk more about that in my next entry.