So you want your chickens and ducks to come home every night from their free-range adventures? Fala Burnett has excellent advice for using clickers to train your birds.
Consider using the clicker training method with your flock for effective training, whether it is for a practical purpose or just for fun. Socializing your animals can make the difference in everyday handling, and can even make a difference when selling to another home that wants a feathered friend. Think about how fun it could be for you and your youngster to teach your backyard hen to run a miniature obstacle course! Imagine how easy it can be to transport your bird by teaching them to walk into a carrying crate without a struggle. I encourage you to think about the ways that clicker training can benefit you and your flock, and hope you will be creative in finding ways to use it. Remember, clicker training is not just for dogs and cats, but can be used for all your poultry and livestock too!
How I Learned about Clickers
My young adult life consisted of careers that were based in the animal care field, mostly working with local humane societies. From personal experience, I came to recognize that too many times animals were surrendered because the owners just didn’t understand their behavior. Pets had even been returned after being adopted because of behavioral issues. After some time, I was introduced to the concept of clicker training by a co-worker that was dedicated to improving the chances of adoptability, and I began to use clicker training from that point on.
Clickers as Positive Training
The use of clicker training involves marking a desired behavioral response in a positive way, noting the moment they did the right thing with a reward to follow. You begin by associating the sound of the clicker with a reward, in most cases the reward being food or a treat. Generally, the sound is made by pressing a button on a handheld clicker. Some people choose to use a verbal cue however by clucking, or using a word such as “good” or “yes” to mark the correct action.
Combine with Treats as Reward
In order to be effective, the click (or desired positive marker sound) needs to be immediately followed by the reward, so that the animal learns to associate the sound with the reward that follows. Once this step has been repeated for some time, you move on to using the click-reward system to mark the desired behavior. When a dog is learning to sit, for instance, the individual should click and treat immediately when the desired action has been performed. During this time, a person is also associating the word or hand signal that accompanies the desired command by giving it to the animal and asking them for that response. The process is based in repetition, and requires patience on the trainer’s part.
My Research into Clicker Training
When I was initially researching clicker training and how I would be able to incorporate it into my work with shelter pets, I was guilty at that time for thinking it had no place with farm animals. Even after growing up around livestock and poultry, I didn’t believe this type of training could be used with them. By chance, my research eventually led me to discover the work of the late Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and avid animal behaviorist who promoted low-stress handling for pets. She had a variety of articles and videos of clicker training work for horses, and even chickens, which served to inspire me to further study how positive behavior training could benefit the relationship between farm animals and their keepers.
Clickers and Chickens
The first clicker training work outside of the realm of dogs and cats that I tried was with chickens. We had hand-raised a young hen who was extremely sociable, yet very hard to catch or pick up when you needed to. I started off by withholding her normal ration of feed, and instead began to give it to her throughout the day by associating it with the sound of the clicker. I repeated this process for some time, using click-treat until she came to realize that the sound meant a food reward would follow. We moved on to tasks such as “heel” to ask her to follow directly by my side, or saying “up” to ask her to put herself into her coop without a fuss. I also began to use a hand signal that asked her to fly onto my arm, whether she was directly on the ground or on a perch. These three commands eliminated the issue of chasing her around, and showed our little hen that it was rewarding.
We have another group of adult hens, who we did not become caretakers of until they were all over 5 years old. They were not hand-raised to the extent of most of our animals that we’ve had since a young age, so they were very flighty to start off. As they became more comfortable in their new home, these hens were also taught to ring a bell, and immediately respond to the sight of it by running over and wanting to peck for a reward. Even adult poultry have the capability of learning through clicker training, not just young animals.
Clickers and Ducks
A few years down the line, we have recently began to raise Khaki Campbell ducks again, and they have been clicker trained as well. Before the pair were even fully feathered, they learned to ring a service (desk) bell by tapping their bills to achieve the sound. It began simply as a fun idea, but it became practical as the ducklings grew, eventually teaching them to put themselves back into their coop whenever the heard the sound of the bell. This was another instance where the use of clicker training has spared us from chasing and herding them to get them back into their run, now that they know they will receive a positive reward for coming to us when they hear the bell.
Learn Basic Animal Behaviour
I recommend that anyone interested first understand the basics of positive, reward-based training. Research how to properly use the clicker or verbal cue, immediately followed by the reward. Having a good understanding of the body language and treat preferences of your animal also come in to play here. Young folks should always have an adult with them when they are handling animals, and we should use common sense and safety even for our flocks. Again, being able to read an animal’s body language fits in to safety, as you don’t want the animal to become distressed or flighty and leave them with a bad experience.
Here’s a video to show you how clicker training can work.
After graduating high school, Fala Burnette went from working part-time to full-time at an animal shelter, then continued to keep careers that dealt with animals. After she married her husband in December 2014, she left her job working as the kennel manager of a veterinary clinic. The couple moved to Ashland, Alabama to begin building a cabin on the land where her husband was raised.
Fala and her husband are working to build a cabin by hand, with logs they’ve cut and notched together on their own. They currently raise chickens, and hope to begin raising Khaki Campbell ducks again soon. The couple also owns a portable sawmill that they frequently mill and sell lumber with. One of her goals is to transition into 100% heirloom seed crops by next Spring.
You can find more of Fala’s articles at Mother Earth News.