I started out with the idea that I would follow the protocol for the chickens that I learned last summer at a Bob Bailey-Parvene Farhoody Chicken Workshop. That protocol went like this:
Start with three colors, red, blue, and yellow. Chickens can see all the same colors that we can. Lay out the three disks, one of each color. See which color the chicken picked first. That’s her “hottest” color. Remove that one and try again. The first one she picks on this round is her “second hottest” color. The last one left is her “coldest” color.
The “game”, as it were, is to train her to treat the “coldest” color to be hotter than her original “hottest” color. For example, if she chose red first and yellow second, then you train her to prefer blue over either of the other colors.
This is done by first training her to peck the blue disk only with lots of reinforcement on a continuous reinforcement schedule (CRF). Move this disk around a lot. When you think she will peck the blue one exclusively, carefully add the yellow one back in. If she pecks the yellow one, remove the blue one for a moment or two and then put it back in the game. This is removing the opportunity for reinforcement which is a form of P-, or negative punishment. Keep changing where the disks are relative to each other and never more than two inches apart.
When the hen can reliably peck the blue one to the exclusion of the yellow one, try adding the red one back in. At this level, keep the red one as far from the blue one as you can, but slightly shift things. Also feed over the disk you want her to peck.
The final test is to start with the blue one, say, on your left, the yellow one in the middle and the red one is on your right. Each is no more than two inches from another. If she successfully pecks the blue one on the first try, move it to the middle position. If she successfully pecks the blue one on the first try here, next to the red one (!), move it to the end position, switching it with the red one. If she successfully pecks the blue one in this last position on the first try, you’ve graduated your bird. Congratulations!
Good chicken trainers can get this behavior in two days. It took me at least four. (There is a reversal of this behavior but I won’t go into that here.)
I tried doing it this way with Atticus. Now, I know that horses really only see blue and yellow, with red and green being slightly different shades of dark grey. They’re like people who are red-green colorblind. But I still started with the colors of red, blue, and yellow. Blue seems to be a “hot” color for horses. At least mine and Peggy Hogan‘s McKee.
I started with getting Atty to focus on the red cone. And every time I though he got it and was ready to have the yellow cone introduced, it became obvious that he didn’t really “get” it. Maybe I was moving too fast – too much like a chicken trainer – moving the cones around. I experimented with different cones – tall, hard plastic ones and low, soft soccer cones. On the ground – that didn’t work! On a table – ah, that’s better. I went with the taller cones for awhile, but switched back to the soccer cones today and that was much better, I think.
I tried to think of the little details that might make it harder for him and ways that I could make it easier for him to figure it out. For one thing, movement is a big deal. The last cone that moves is the first one that is touched, regardless of its color. The closest one to his head at the time gets touched first. Was it too far away and he couldn’t reach it?
Also, were they in a place that he could actually see them? Were they right under his nose and he couldn’t see them? I have a hard time actually imagining how he might see the set up. Horses can’t see that well close up in general and don’t see much with both eyes, except may directly in front them and about three feet out from the nose.
I had to be very mindful of where and how I set the cones down relative to him and to each other and make sure that the one I wanted him to touch was the last one that moved.
But somehow things just didn’t seem to be going all that well. He and I were both getting frustrated. I finally realized that we needed a “wait” cue or a behavior the way Peggy trained McKee for “Match to Sample“. While I didn’t feel that we were training match to sample, per se, I did see a need for a wait cue or a behavior that told me he was ready for the next trial, rather than just throwing cones around.
Peggy came out for a clinic in Woodville, VA, this past weekend and spent some time with me. She coached me and helped me see what little pieces we needed and how to get them.
We definitely needed the “wait” cue or the “look”. I don’t know what to call it. But I do know that Atticus is happier with the way we’re doing things now than before.
I may think that horses are “smarter” than chickens, but “smarter” isn’t exactly the right description. The two species are simply different and can’t really be compared. Chickens are extremely fast. Which can be good or bad. If you’re right on the money, then training can go extremely fast in the right direction. If you’re not, then training can go downhill badly really fast.
Horses are just different and I can’t really put into words yet exactly how different. But I know I can’t train color discrimination in two days or even four. I don’t know how long this experiment will take, but it’s really an interesting journey!
Related Blog: Feeding for Position, Redux