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Thursday, 03 November 2011 13:06

Coalhurst woman can train chickens with a click

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By Jamie Woodford
It walks like a chicken, it clucks like a chicken, and it, um, plays piano like a chicken.
Indeed teaching a chicken tricks is possible with the help of clicker training. In fact, the practice of training chickens is one of the best ways for animal trainers to improve their skills, said Donna McLaughlin, a dog, horse, and now chicken trainer from Coalhurst.

“Chickens are a lot smarter than you would ever think,” she said. “We can teach them to go over little agility courses and they can learn to retrieve, and tug and pretty much anything you can teach a dog to do.”

McLaughlin has been training dogs for more than 25 years, and training with a clicker for about 15 years.

“Over the years training has evolved in a much more positive reward-based method,” she said.

Animals attribute the clicking sound to having done something right, and get a reward for their efforts.

“It’s a very respectful way of teaching, very respectful of the animal,” McLaughlin said. “To me, it’s as close as you can come to actually being able to talk to the animal because you’re asking them to think.”

McLaughlin learned how to train fowl three years ago at a “chicken camp” taught by the legendary animal trainer Bob Bailey.

“It was absolutely the best experience. Not just from a training perspective, but just life experience,” she said of the camp.

Why chickens? It’s essentially training for the trainer, not necessarily for the chicken, McLaughlin explained.

Because chickens can’t read human body language like a dog or a horse, trainers have to work harder to change the bird’s behaviour.

“With a dog, even a horse, they can read certain things from us and so we don’t always have to use the best training form to train them. We can be kind of sloppy and still accomplish things,” she said.

At chicken camp, McLaughlin learned many ways to train a chicken, from getting it to peck a specific coloured dot to training it to perform a figure eight through two cones. She’s even managed to teach a chicken to play the piano, although that isn’t really a difficult skill to teach a bird, she said.

“It only looks higher up because it’s the piano, but really I’m just clicking them for pecking it.”

Teaching a chicken to walk in complete figure-eight pattern twice on a six-foot long table? Now that is a challenge.

“When we trained it, we were only allowed to stay at the short end, we were never allowed to move down the table, so that chicken had to learn to go on its own,” McLaughlin recalled. “And this is something we don’t even get our dogs to do. We heel with our dogs, but we’re with the dogs. The chickens just had to go on their own.”

She added one could change a chicken’s behaviour again by placing a black potted plant over the cone, which would make it switch to walking in a circle. Removing the pots, the chicken would revert to the figure eight.

McLaughlin said no two chickens are alike when training.

“It always seemed like one was a fast one and one was a slow one and they do vary, they are quite different that way. Some were just like a ‘border collie’ chicken, and others were the slow chicken.”

Strange looks and jokes are common when McLaughlin tells people at her obedience classes about chicken camp. She knows how bizarre it may seem; gags were a part of chicken camp too.

“They have a good sense of humour at chicken camp. All of our supplies that we used were in a KFC bucket.”

All jokes aside, McLaughlin has seen an improvement in her own training since attending the camp.

“It improves your skills just working with all the different types of animals, and they’re all individuals,” she said.

“One of (Bailey’s) messages ... was to be able to change our behaviours as trainers, so if we were doing something with the chicken and it wasn’t working ... I’d just keep changing things up, and all of a sudden, boom (the chicken) got it,” she said.

“So that message for me was just really huge.

If something’s not working, I’m not communicating very well. I’ve got to change what I do.”

McLaughlin continues to train chickens to better her training with dogs, her preferred species.

“I try to keep at it just to keep my skills up ... so I always have a few chickens. Plus it’s fun to take them out to demos or let other people try it out,” she said.

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