Simple, But Not Easy!

“It’s simple, but not easy.”

That is one of the things we hear from Bob over and over again, and it is something we discover for ourselves many times during each training day. The principles we are applying are few and simple. The process is quite another story. It is, first of all, mentally very demanding, requiring multiple focus; mechanically very demanding, requiring split-second decision-making, timing, and accuracy in placing the food reinforcement. In addition, although Bob, correctly in my opinion, strongly recommends keeping emotion out of the training process, it can be very stressful, and emotionally taxing when working under very strict time constraints as we are. What we are doing here also requires strong social and communication skills, and adabtability both in terms of our inward and outward behavior since we are working with new partners each week who have different personalities, different skill levels, and likely come from a different country and culture, and speak a different native language than we do,

And it’s all about changing OUR behavior in order to change the animals’ behavior from what we don’t want to what we do want. The chickens are really a vehicle for training ourselves, and it is about so much more than getting chickens to do specific behaviors.

And all of the above relates to blogging as well, as I am discovering. Day after day I have said to myself “you have to write something today”, then dithered about what to write and how to write it until there is no time left. Then I beat myself up a bit (as if I have not been doing that all day every time I make a mistake in training), and go to sleep vowing to write something tomorrow for sure. I started to write this days ago, finished it, and when I tried to publish it the internet connection was interrupted, and I lost a big part of it that had not yet been saved. So, I am going to write some sort of a conclusion, publish it, and write more tomorrow.

Two days ago on Sunday we concluded the fourth week, Chaining. For me it was the most satisfying week so far because I felt that a lot of what I learned and practiced during the previous three weeks came together. However, it was not easy or stress-free. By the end of the day Friday I had concluded that I was the worst trainer in the world, and was, quite honestly, very depressed. I decided to find a private place and take five minutes to have a good cry. As it happens I did not succeed in finding that private place, so never had the cry.  Instead I came up with a “cunning plan” (BlackAdder fans will know about “cunning plans”) to solve a problem that both my chickens were having on one part of the assignment (part of the reason I was the worst trainer in the world) . Saturday morning I put my plan into action, and it worked with both chickens! Based on that I elevated my status to “not the worst trainer in the world”, and managed to maintain that status through the end of the course – yay!

I have uploaded a video of last week’s “final performance” for both my chickens, and as soon as I can edit it I will post it here. In the meantime, I am exhausted, and it is past time to go to sleep if I expect to be at all able to function tomorrow.

Criteria Workshop Begins

My apologies for falling short on my commitment to summarize the first two weeks before today. It has turned out to be a greater task than I anticipated. I think for now it is important to keep up with current events, and catch up with the first two weeks little by little as we go along.

In any case there is some repetition at the beginning of each week as we continue to hone our mechanical skills before actually beginning the week’s work with the chickens, so what I will describe now covers some of the first part of both week 1 and week 2.

It is now lunch time, and most of the people have gone to lunch, but my seatmate Margherita has kindly agreed to bring my lunch back so I can remain here to write, and if there is time take Jacques for a brief walk. Pista, who is Margherita’s dog, and who is also Jacques’ Border Collie friend whom you saw in the pictures, is here snoozing beside us while Jacques relaxes on his mat a few feet away. Again, I am amazed to see Jacques so relaxed in close proximity to another dog.

So, now about the workshop itself so far. It began, as every other one has on the first day, with each of the students introducing themselves and giving a bit of information about their involvement with animal training, the reason they are taking the workshop, and what they expect to take from the experience. Though there is a core group that have been here from the beginning, each week there is a slightly different group of people as some have left, and others arrive. The people who join after the first week have previously been through the first workshop, which is a prerequisite to all the others, and may have taken other workshops before, and are here to complete the series, or to take specific workshops that are of particular interest.

I have already given an idea of the nationalities, and interests of many of the people here. This week we have two new people from Finland who have a training school there, have worked with Bob, and who teach chicken camps at their own facility. They are here to observe, and during the working sessions they are watching us and providing advice and suggestions based on what they see. It will be great to have the additional help as we struggle to change our behavior in order to get the chickens to change theirs to what we want. There is also now a third person here from the U.S., Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinary behaviorist well known to many dog trainers and behaviorists in the U.S.That makes a total of three veterinarians who have attended one or more of this series of workshops; one from Finland, one from Norway, and one from the United States. There is also a clinical psychologist here from Norway who works with people who have depression and anxiety.

After the introductions, and a brief lecture from Bob in which he reviewed fundamentals, we retired to the training room where we chose our partners/coaches for the week if we had not already done so, and selected our chickens. We are “strongly advised” to choose different partners and a different pair of chickens each week. Although I was happy to work with my former partner, Alberto, for two weeks, I agree that it is good to change partners each week in order to get a different point of view, and learn to work with people with a variety of strengths and knowledge, and a variety of personalities.

Participants work in pairs, and alternate training their chickens and coaching their partners as they train. Each participant gets two chickens to work with during the week. I have decided that, while the choice of partner/coach does matter quite a bit, it does not matter as much which chickens I choose. While having a “good” chicken that will easily learn what I want it to learn (sometimes in spite of my less-than-perfect skill) is encouraging, you really do learn more from the “bad” chickens that present greater challenges, even though you might not ever get all the behavior you are working toward. So, I selected my chickens somewhat at random knowing my ego will surely pay a price, but I will also likely learn more.

The work sessions began as they did for weeks one and two, without the chickens. We rehearsed our mechanical skills, delivering the food reinforcement, and clicking. It may seem silly to some, but as Bob emphasizes frequently, good mechanical skills are essential. In fact, Bob goes farther than that and says that training IS a mechanical skill. It is true that timing and accuracy are hugely important in effective and efficient training, and a good trainer rehearses the mechanics without the animal before beginning the training, After a session or two it may be necessary to modify or refine the mechanics further in order to get the behavior one wants in an effective and efficient manner. I have learned that lesson the hard way on a number of occasions myself in the past (I even have a couple of examples on Jacques’ YouTube channel, accompanied by the rules for how not to train an animal that are exemplified in the video), but it was not sufficient to cause me to change my behavior enough in that regard. Hopefully after five weeks of Chicken Camp I will be a reformed person who always thinks through, then practices the mechanics of a training session before bringing the animal into the picture. I intend to do that tomorrow before subjecting my poor chickens to my training efforts!

After working on the mechanics we acquainted ourselves with the chickens by observing them in the cages, handling them, and getting them to move about on the table in response to food reinforcements or a target stick. The main idea behind these exercises was to observe the chickens and get an idea of what we would be working with for the rest of the week. Finally, we made a beginning on the first behaviors we will be training this week; walking in different patterns around a pair of traffic cones. More about that later.

Tonight we need to prepare a training plan for these behaviors. That is also a big challenge for me, and one I really need to meet head on. I make plans, but not nearly often enough, and both the animals and I pay the price for that in lost time, and frustration on my part when things do not go as hoped (as opposed to as planned). It is a deficiency in my training that I hope these workshops will help me begin to correct.

So, now that it is 10:00 PM I will retire from writing this blog, and work on my training plan. I don’t want to be embarrassed tomorrow by being the only one who does not have one, and I do not want to cheat myself or my chicken out of the benefits of beginning the project without a plan.

It’s Jacques’ Adventure Too

Since this is Jacques’ adventure as well as mine, I thought I should include some of the very few snapshots I have taken so far. Have not taken any time to crop or otherwise alter them, so here they are straight from the camera:

Jacques standing in the meadow

Jacques standing in a Swedish meadow.

For those who know about Jacques’ dog reactivity issues these next two are quite remarkable. This is one of two dogs he has managed to be very comfortable with, and is his first doggie friend in Sweden. We hope to get some better snaps of the two of them together – we have already missed some really lovely ones – timing is everything!

Jacques sleeps on his mat under the table during lecture/discussion periods, and Pista is usually two or three seats down, but for some reason Pista decided to curl up right next to us on this day, and as you can see, Jacques is completely relaxed and comfy – quite remarkable. Jacques is still pretty reactive with most of the other dogs here (quite understandable in some cases!), but this gives me hope that with more training he will become increasingly comfortable around other dogs.

Jacques and Pista cuddling up

For anyone who is curious, to work on Jacques’ reactivity I have been using Control Unleashed games for quite some time, and have been through a couple of different CU-based reactive dog classes with him ( at four weeks’ length they are always too short, and too “beginner” to get very far, unfortunately). Recently I began using Grisha Stewart’s BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training) approach at a very basic level. One of my problems is that I really cannot set up the kind of structured environment that is ideal for this kind of work, so have to opportunistically use real-life situations, which can be unpredictable. Recently I found a real-life situation where I can pretty reliably predict where the dogs are going, and nearly always have an escape route if necessary, so can keep the distance Jacques needs while doing the work. I have seen really major progress in the last month and a half. The situation here was perfect last week, but this week there are too many dogs here, some of whom are reactive or aggressive themselves, and not as well-controlled by their handlers as the ones last week, and I cannot always get and keep the distance we need, but Jacques is also better at coping for the most part, so we will get by and hopefully continue to make progress.

Who Goes To Chicken Camp, And Why?

It might be interesting to know what kinds of people consider it worth their while to attend Chicken Camp, and what they expect it to do for them, so I will talk about some of the people who are here, and how they expect to benefit from it.

To the best of my knowledge everyone attending this series of Chicken Camps is either an animal trainer, or expects to be training animals some time in the near future. Some are experienced people who are here to increase and solidify knowledge and improve skills they already have and have been using for some time. Others are experienced with other methods of training and are here to learn a new approach to training. Still others are new to animal training, have little or no experience, and are here to get started learning how to train animals without force or conflict using methods that are supported by scientific data.

The majority of the people here are dog trainers. Some are professionals, some are hobbyists, some are wannabe professionals, or former professionals seeking to find a better way to train dogs. There are people here who train dogs for

  • competitive sports such as obedience, rally, agility, and freestyle.
  • service dogs for disabled persons.
  • basic pet good manners.
  • problem-solving for issues such as aggression, fearfulness, excessive barking, etc.
  • the military (there is a group here from the Norwegian military who work with explosive-detection dogs).
  • the police (there is a group here from the Dutch Police, including a man named Simon Prins who directs training efforts for military and police in various countries, and about whom I will probably have more to say).

There are also people whose goal is to train birds.

  • Swedish graduate students seeking more effective and efficient ways to train birds used in their research projects.
  • a Belgian performer who does adults’ and children’s comedy shows and wants to train his own animals for his shows because trainers he has hired have fallen short of expectations.
  • a Spaniard who works with falcons owned by the President of the UAE.
  • a woman who will train birds that will participate in avian research at Stanford.

And some who are interested in horse training

  • to overcome behavior problems such as fear of loading into trailors, spookiness, biting, kicking, etc.
  • for basic ground manners and pleasure riding.
  • for competition such as dressage, jumping, etc.

There have also been two veterinarians here so far, one from Finland, and one from Norway.

A number of people who work with exotic animals, zoo animals, and marine mammals have been through the camps. In fact, this type of training has revolutionized zoo animal care and maintenance, greatly reducing the use of forced restraint, which is dangerous to people and causes severe stress to the animals, and tranquilizers for routine medical and other maintenance procedures. It is also useful for efficiently moving the animals from one location to another without the use of restraint or drugs.

So, that is a general picture of the types of people who attend Chicken Camps, and gives some idea of the different applications for this type of training.

Tomorrow I will try to sum up the first two weeks as best I can.

So Why Do People Come All The Way to Sweden To Train Chickens?

Today is the first day of our “weekend” – two days off after five grueling days of lectures and hours and hours of chicken-training sessions. In this post I will try to explain briefly what it is really all about, and later on I will talk about the variety of people who are here, and then attempt to summarize the first two weeks. I am also trying to get some pictures and videos uploaded, but having technical challenges at the moment, so that may be delayed for a few days while my wonderful web host in Alexandria, Egypt gets the problem fixed.

This morning was very sad because Alberto, my training partner, seatmate, and housemate for the last two weeks, has left to return home. He was only able to get away for two weeks, so is not able to attend all five weeks. Alberto is from Madrid, and lives in Abu Dhabi where he works with falcons (and also a cheetah – more about that later, perhaps), so is something of a bird expert, although of course he found chickens quite different from falcons. He is also a really good wildlife and nature photographer, and had some really wonderful photographs to show us. He is quite a character, and we will all miss him, especially me since we spent so much time together in and outside of the workshops. I appreciated his input during the training, his tolerance of my occasional firecracker reactions to his comments followed often by admissions that he was right (we both learned to calm down, so the second week was less explosive), and also admired his skill in working with the chickens. This last week he took my problem chicken from the first week (we named her “Mr. Bush” – guess why) and was much more successful than I was with her. Of course, I could claim that I laid the groundwork that led to his success, but to be fair, he made significant improvements in her behavior, so I cannot claim any credit at all.

So, first of all, what is this nonsense about training chickens? Why do people travel from as far away as California and Abu Dhabi and pay significant amounts of money to study chicken training nine hours a day for weeks on end? Is this some kind of cult (some of us ARE living “on the compound”, after all)? Are we convinced that chicken training is the wave of the future, and once it catches on we will be on the cutting edge, and become rich and famous chicken trainers? Or is it some kind of pyramid marketing scheme where you sell ten other people on taking the class and get your classes and your Chicken Training Business starter kit for free (could that be my ulterior motive in writing this blog?!)?

Well, no, actually. We are not REALLY learning to train chickens, you see. Chickens are the model used to teach animal trainers a combination of mechanical skills, and fundamental principles of behavior and training. Keller and Marian Breland (Marian and Bob Bailey married some years after Keller Breland’s death), who were grad students studying under B.F. Skinner, began in the 1940’s using chickens to teach the principles and mechanics of animal training based on scientific principles of learning (mainly Operant Conditioning). Over the years Bob and Marian tried other species, but always came back to chickens as the ideal model species because

  • chicken behavior is simple, not complicated.
  • chickens, unlike dogs and other commonly-trained species, do not form strong social bonds, which among other things simplifies the animal-trainer relationship.
  • chickens of the same breed are genetically very similar to one another, so are behaviorally consistent (though believe me, there are significant experience-based differences between individual chickens – nurture acts on nature and provides variety even among genetically-identical individuals).
  • chickens, while not the einsteins of the animal world, are very strong and fast learners – it’s imperative for survival.
  • chickens react and move very fast, which demands very strong timing and other mechanical skills on the part of the trainer.
  • Chickens will quickly learn the wrong thing if the trainer makes mistakes in timing or judgment, so the cost of training errors and the time required to undo them can be quite high.

And, as Bob emphasizes often, the workshops are not really about training chickens to perform Stupid Chicken Tricks, although we all strive to succeed at that. The bottom line is for the students to learn to change our own behavior as the situation demands. The main thing is that if what we are doing to train the chickens is not working, then we need to change what we are doing. Continuing to do the wrong thing will never make it right, so do something different. Then, of course, simply randomly changing what we are doing until we accidentally find something that works is not an efficient way to go about the task, so that is where analysis and planning based on fundamental principles of learning come into the picture. Many of us have also found that there is quite a bit of self-discovery that goes on, some of which goes beyond our beliefs and habits regarding animal training, but that is another topic.

So, to summarize, yes, we are all here spending hours a day training chickens to do various types of tricks, but the end goal is not to become expert chicken trainers, but to develop and improve mechanical skills and judgment, and to gain an understanding of fundamental principles and how to apply them effectively and efficiently. What we are learning here in Sweden we can apply to any species. The principles are supported by science, and apply to all animals, and the mechanical techniques, while they may require some modification for different species and situations, are generally applicable everywhere.

Next time something about the variety of people who are here, and then I will attempt to summarize the last two weeks.

So What Is This Chicken Clickin’ thing All About, Anyway?

This blog begins with my dog Jacques’ and my five-week experience attending Chicken Camp taught by Bob Bailey  in Borlänge, Sweden – or rather in the countryside outside of Borlänge. Bob and his chicken camps, which he and his late wife Marian Breland Bailey developed in 1996, are famous among behaviorists, and trainers who are committed to using training methods based on the principles of Operant Conditioning (B.F. Skinner’s work). Pavlov’s work on Classical Conditioning is also involved, but the emphasis is on the use of Operant Conditioning. Bob and Marian Bailey are both scientists who were principles in Animal Behavior Enterprises, which was formed by Marian and her then-husband the late Keller Breland, also a scientist.

So, where do I begin, especially now that we are nearly two weeks into the five-week-long series of workshops, and although a great deal has happened, I have yet to write a word?

Jacques and I arrived in Borlänge on Monday afternoon, July 2, two days before the first workshop began. We flew from San Francisco to Amsterdam, then with only one hour to go through passport control, a lengthy security process, and make it all the way to the other side of the huge Amsterdam airport (when I called the airline about the short time we had they told me don’t worry, the arriving and departing flights are in the same terminal, and you will not need to go through passport control or security, so it will be no problem – not a word of it was true!) we took the two-hour flight to Stockholm, and from there a two-hour train ride to the village of Borlänge where we were met by Marie Fogelquist who is hosting the workshops.

The flights from San Francisco to Stockholm were not bad. Jacques sat on my lap during most of the flight, and the flight attendants on the flight from SF to Amsterdam made quite a fuss over him, which he did not mind a bit. The the train was pretty comfortable, and went through mile after mile of beautifully lush, green landscape with lots of large ponds/small lakes, and fields of wildflowers. The only problem was that I was so tired I kept falling asleep, and was concerned I would miss my stop, and end up who-knows-where. Fortunately, that did not happen.

One of my concerns on this long trip was Jacques’ potty needs, especially since he is very strongly conditioned not to use any indoor space as a toilet. He managed the 14 or so hours of flight without showing any signs of discomfort, and even when I finally got him outside at the Stockholm train station he took his time to choose just exactly the right spot. Hopefully the trip home will be as easy in that regard.

Marie drove us to the training facility where I am renting a room in a nearby house. It is not luxurious, but is comfortable enough for five weeks, and very close to where the workshops are. There are currently six people sharing the house, four women and two men, all of us taking the workshops. So far sharing the house has not been as difficult as I imagined. Those who know me will be surprised to learn that I am the early bird of the group. I get up every morning around 6:30, make a pot of coffee for everyone, and have free access to the bathroom and kitchen for about 1 1/2 hours before the others begin to wake up.

The countryside around here is lovely, with lots of very green meadows, plenty of trees, and lots of wildflowers. Jacques really enjoys taking walks, bounding through the tall grass like a fluffly white rabbit. It’s nice to be able to watch him run around without a leash knowing he is safe doing so.

He has also made two doggie friends here, both of them at least ten times his size. This part is pretty amazing given that he can be quite dog-reactive, but these dogs are both very mild-mannered, kind dogs. One of them is a Border Collie owned by an Italian woman who will be here for the full five weeks, and they have enjoyed playing chase me. The Border Collie very politely modifies his speed to accommodate Jacques’ shorter legs.

The last two weeks there have been around 30 people attending the workshops. I think I win the prize for the person who traveled the farthest. This week the group is dominated by Swedes and Norwegians, but last week it was a more international group. There is a woman from New Jersey who is also here for the full five weeks, and a Dutch woman who very recently immigrated to the U.S., and lives in Palo Alto, CA. There is a contingent here from the Dutch police, who are using force-free methods very successfully to train their police dogs. There are also several people here from Great Britain, one Italian, a couple of Germans, and a Spaniard who lives in Abu Dhabi where he trains falcons for the President of the UAE.

The workshops are five days a week of nine hours days and consist of a combination of lecture/discussions and training sessions. The bulk of each day is taken up with training. Each week covers a different topic. Week one was Discrimination, this week, which ends tomorrow, is Cueing. Next week will be Criteria, then Chaining, then Teaching.  It is very intense to say the least, and everyone is pretty well worn out by the end of the day, and we are grateful for the two days off before the next workshop begins.

It never really gets dark here – at least I have never seen it completely dark, though I have been awake as late as 1:00 AM, and as early as 5:00 AM. That does things to one’s sense of time, and in the evening/night time it is nearly always later than you think. As tired as one is it is difficult to get to bed much before midnight.

Tomorrow and in the next days I will write more about the workshops themselves, and how I and others here are experiencing them. In the meantime, I am going to try to get to bed before midnight for once.