Last month I attended the Bailey-Farhoody Operant Conditioning Chicken Workshop. There are 5 levels of workshops, which must be taken in order, and I attended the first one on Discrimination. The idea is to teach your chickens (each participant is assigned two hens) to discriminate between different targets; one chicken works on shapes, and the other on colors.

Operant conditioning is a way that animal behavior changes based on the consequences of that behavior. Behavior that elicits rewards, for example, a dog getting a cookie when he sits, is more likely to increase in frequency. Behavior that is punished decreases in frequency; for example, a dog receiving a timeout for jumping up on people will learn to keep four feet on the ground.

Training chickens instead of dogs was a humbling experience. Dogs can be very forgiving of human mechanical errors, but chickens are very literal about interpreting what exactly is going to get them their next peck of food.

I thought I was teaching my bird to peck the triangle by clicking every time she pecked at it, but I quickly learned (ok, not so quickly, and only with the patient help of Bob Bailey and Parvene Farhoody), that I was telegraphing my intentions to feed her with body movement before every click. My bird, therefore, thought my lurching about meant she had done the right thing. Since I lurched almost every time she pecked at anything, I inadvertently gave her the impression that the square was the “hot” target. I had a heck of a time trying to convince her otherwise.

Clicker-training chickens instead of dogs is a way of experiencing the principles of operant conditioning in a very clear cut way. The five-day workshop was both inspiring and mentally exhausting.