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.