Bob Bailey and Parvene Farhoody Chicken Workshops, Part One

Over the last two weeks, I’ve attended and participated in two five-day Chicken Workshops run by the infamous Bob Bailey and his new business partner, Parvene Farhoody. These workshops were held at Coventry School for Dogs in Columbia, MD. The first workshop for me was “Discrimination”, held July 3-7, 2013, and the second was “Cues”, held July 10-14, 2013. This was not about training chickens. As Bob repeatedly said, it was about changing the behavior of the trainer. If you want to train chickens, borrow one from a farmer and train it.

We were in class for eight hours a day for five days. It was intense. From an hour of lecture, we’d go train chickens. Or attempt to train chickens. Then back to a lecture. Then back to training. It was both brain-numbing and brain-explanding. So much information to absorb! Then to try to apply it as your training a chicken. Chickens are fast! You can train them very, very quickly to either do what you want or mess it up completely in just a few minutes.

Training with or without the clicker is a mechanical skill – clicking at the right time, delivering food at the right time and in the right place, avoiding spilling food, avoiding having the chicken latch onto or follow the cup, keeping your body still, manipulating the environment and cueing apparatuses, such as laser lights and reflectors on sticks.

Many, many things we do in life are mechanical-skills related. Driving, dancing, riding, skating, bowling, cooking, etc., are all mechanical skills. The mechanics of these skills need to be practiced for their own sake in order to become fluent. Fluency includes fluid motion and contiguous motion. That is, no pauses between parts of the whole.

The first day we practice some mechanical skills. First, we practiced moving the delivery cup from our upper chest (“on high” position) to one inch above the table. If the cup banged on the table, it would scare the chicken. Then we were to go as fast as we could in 15 seconds and see how many times we could deliver the cup to the right place and get it back up to our chests. This is with no food in the cup. Some people could do 20 reps. Some a few more. That was not fast enough; we needed to go AS FAST AS POSSIBLE! GO FASTER! Some people could do as many as 50 reps in 15 seconds! Amazing.

Then we added food. Just one layer of chicken feed, equivalent in size to Grape Nuts cereal, and went as fast as possible. If you were flinging food everywhere, you weren’t going fast enough!

There are two other “positions”: As I right-hander, I’d stand with my left hip near the table and deliver food from my right hip to the middle of the table. That’s the “side front” position. The third position is standing with my right hip next to the table and moving the cup from my left hip to the middle of table by rotating my right arm through the shoulder and keeping my right elbow at my hip. I don’t remember what this position is called.

I’m not sure that I ever actually used any of these positions. I think I made up my own – cup at the shoulder near the neck. And I had to use my left hand because of the arthritis I now have in my right thumb. The first hour or two of clicking the box clicker attached to the cup really flared up that arthritis. I think this became a blessing in disguise because in the second workshop, I had to manipulate two lasers at the same time, but I could use my right hand for this. Whew!

We each got two birds to work with and started with 30-second training sessions with each. Then we moved up to one minute.

The first two tasks were either teach the bird to discriminate between colors (blue, red, yellow) or between shapes (circle, square, triangle, hexagon). I did manage to “graduate” my color bird, but never did finish the shapes.

Once you’ve graduated a bird on the basic discrimination, you then have to reverse the stimulus – change from the “hot” target you’ve built through training to a different color or shape.

To find out which was going to be your “hot” target on color, you laid out all three color discs and waited to see which one your bird pecked first. That was #1. Then let it pick another. That was #2. The remaining color was now your “hot” target that you had to train for. You needed to keep track of what the #1 color was for the reversal. You did the same for shapes except that there were four.

We actually started with large targets about four inches or so across. It had a black ring about two inches wide, with a two-inch wide center that was white, and then a black dot in the center. We had to teach the birds to peck as close to the center of the target as possible. The birds, however, want to peck the edge where the black meets the table. Then they’ll also prefer to peck the edge between the white and the black.

This is where Collier’s behavior economics comes in. If the bird pecks on the bottom right of the target, say at five o’clock, feed for position on the opposite side of the target so that the bird has to go farther to get the food. Soon the bird will choose to be in the middle of where it had been pecking and where the food is. This is part of behavioral economics. How valuable is food vs. how far away is it?

Move the target frequently, but only a little. It doesn’t have to from one end of the table to the other. A couple of inches will do.

Then we moved to a small target – two to three inches across, all black with a white dot in the middle. Can you get your bird to peck the white dot? Consistently? Can you click at the right time or are you late or early? Does you bird fool you? Do you see the behavior your want before you get it? Can you see the antecedents? What does the bird look like just before it actually pecks? Is it getting frustrated and scratching? Is it “raking” the target up (kind of a scooping peck that catches the upper edge)? Is it picking the target up? Is it swiping at the target in that the beak appears to come straight down in the right place but then swoops off to one side at the last moment? Can you wait through mistakes to get a good peck?

It’s better to miss a good peck than to click and reward a mistake. “When in doubt, leave it out” to avoid rewarding mistakes. Or “Better never than late” with your click and reward the wrong behavior.

Now we’re ready for the “hot” color target which is about the size of a quarter. Click and treat for the bird pecking the target. Move it around a little. Make sure that your girl only pecks the target, preferably near the center, and not the table in general or wander off. Or even fly off the table! Keep the rate of reinforcement high but DON’T, repeat DON’T, click and reward for making any kind of mistake.

Once you’ve got her reliably pecking this target, add in the #2 color from her choices and only reward her for pecking the right target. Switch the positions of the targets but keep them about two inches apart.

Once you’ve got her consistently about 80% of the time pecking the right color, add in the third color, which, if you remember, was her original “hot” target. During training, if she pecks the wrong target, take away the “hot” one – take away the opportunity to peck the right one and get rewarded. The end goal is for her to only peck the right color and be able to wait up to 20 seconds for the right color to come back into play if it is taken away. And Bob and Parvene will do all sorts of things to confuse your bird to make her peck the wrong target! The same process works for shapes except that there are four to work up to. We failed our first evaluation but nailed it the second time. The failure actually took the pressure off.

The reversal works like this: Now that your bird is confirmed on what was originally color #3, you have to change your bird over to her original color #1. Start with all three colors laid out in a row, each color about two inches from the others in a straight line. The order would be the current “hot” target at one end and what will be the “new” hot target at the other. Let her peck her current “hot” color with clicks and treats two times. Once you’ve done that you can no longer reward her for pecking that color. You now click and treat for doing anything else as long as it’s not pecking what is now the “old” target. Deliver the food as far away from that “old” color (or shape) as possible. Click and treat as fast as possible for behaviors away from the “old” target. Deliver as close to the new target as makes sense. Sometimes that’s almost on top of the new target, sometimes that a little to the side, depending on where she pecked. Remember Herrnstein’s Matching Law!

Soon she’ll accidentally peck the new target. Be sure to click and reward that. Once it seems that she’s reliably pecking the new target, move it to position #2 once and then back to where it started. Keep playing with these two positions to get her to reliably peck the correct new target. Eventually switch positions down to #3, but move back up the line again.

The end goal is to be able to peck once (click and treat) the new target in position #1 where it started, switch to position #2 and peck once (CT), and then position #3 and peck once (CT) with no mistakes!

Really interesting and really fun. Also a great challenge to the brain and your skill mechanics. Can you keep the cup out of reach, but click at the right time, and deliver food to the right place quickly for only one peck without spilling food, and move the targets around? When you realize you’re making mistakes, can you change your behavior to fix them? That’s what these workshops are all about – changing the behavior of the trainer.

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About Laurie Higgins

I play with clicker training - with my horses, dogs, and cats. I also attempt to grow vegetables with the hope of one day being able to feed my family from my garden. My daughter and I are learning ballroom dancing. Well, we were. But she left me for a paying horse job, so now my husband and I are learning ballroom dancing. I'm also now helping Peggy Hogan, of Clicker Training Horses (and The Best Whisper is a Click) to teach people how to train their own horses using "clicker training".
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