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.

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