The Chicken Experiment

San Marcos La Laguna is teeming with free-roaming chickens. They are in the streets, they are in the yards, they are behind fences and outside of fences. Roosters cockadoodledoo all night, and chickens, big and small, enjoy their life (until they don’t).

Where we used to live for the past 2.5 years, there was one trail that led past chickens and turkeys. My dogs initially craved a bite or two, but soon learned to walk past without giving it much thought. They accepted that killing chickens just wasn’t in the cards for them. 

When we got to San Marcos la Laguna – the first stop of our slow travel road trip – Game showed me she had generalized her walking-past-chickens skills. I walked her off leash, and she was great at strolling past chickens without paying attention to them. Until The Day That Changed Everything.

The Day That Changed Everything

Our morning walk to the lake led us past a metal gate with a gap below, just tall enough for a chicklet to squeeze out into the street. One morning, we were walking past the gate as usual, minding our own business, when a little chicklet ducked under the gate, and tried to cross the f*ing road. By the time I noticed the wee bird, it had strolled right under Game’s muzzle. Smack! Game lowered her muzzled nose, and that chicklet’s road-crossing intentions were cut short. Game was delighted! Who knew that smashing down your muzzle makes the little feather toys stop moving! So much power! So much fun!

(I found the owner, apologized, and paid the equivalent of US$15 dollars for the chicklet. Yes, that’s certainly the price of a whole flock of grown chickens, but I’d have paid twice as much, too. It was my fault; I certainly deserved the financial punishment.)

Game is a smart dog capable of single-event learning. Going forwards, she didn’t look at chickens like she used to (the way she looks at furniture: boring; whatever). She now looked at chickens – big and small, black and white and brown and red and stripey, egg-laying or cockadoodledoing – like this:

A recall challenge

I wanted to continue having Game off leash in this town of free-roaming fowl. I was only going to stay for a few weeks, but I have never met a recall challenge I didn’t like. I could, of course, also have made this a “leave it” challenge – most trainers probably would; “leave it” seems more intuitive in this context. But recalls are my thing, so that’s what I went with.

I remembered an interesting episode from The Canine Paradigm: Episode 22 – Greyhound Versus Cat. In this episode, Pat modifies the prey drive of his sister’s newly adopted Greyhound to keep him from eliminating the family cat. Pat doesn’t approach this as a recall issue – but his training intrigued me, and I decided to use my chicken challenge to try something similar.

If you haven’t listened to the Greyhound Versus Cat episode on the Canine Paradigm – do so before reading on! Pat’s story will help you understand what I am doing in the videos below. It’s also a great podcast episode. I wouldn’t do it justice by trying to summarize it – just check it out yourself. And in the unlikely case that you haven’t heard of The Canine Paradigm before, get ready to add a new podcast to your personal favorites!

So many new things to try!

I had never used existential food to convince a dog not to chase a prey animal. While I train with kibble a lot in everyday life, I’d generally use higher value reinforcers for something as difficult as a recall away from a chicken. I have also never fed an entire meal after a single click.

Would a large amount of food make up for its lower value (kibble is low value, but an entire meal is a big reward)? Would Game be able to eat an entire meal without lifting her head, and thinking chicken thoughts, right away? Or would it take a while for her to learn that interrupting the behavior of eating caused the restaurant to close? I couldn’t wait to find out.

The Game plan, part 1

I came up with the following rules:

  1. Game was going to earn both her daily meals – breakfast and dinner – for chicken recalls.
  2. For a single chicken recall, she would receive an entire meal.
  3. If she stopped eating (i.e. lifted her head), I’d take away the food.
  4. The next opportunity to eat would only come around at the following mealtime, which, again, would happen in a chicken context.

Session #1

Criteria: No recall cue. I’ll click for her choice to reorient to me after figuring out she can’t get to the chicken.

Session #3 or #4:


Criteria: I’m adding a recall cue, but will reward her even if the leash tightens before she comes back. (I will require the leash to stay loose a few sessions further down the line.)

An unexpected injury

While we were training our way through the chicken challenge, Game hurt herself (she’s a head-through-the-wall kind of dog – it happens surprisingly often). I put her on limited activity for a week. No running, no playing, no training – except for her two daily short leash walks culminating in a chicken recall at meal time.

Session #5ish

Criteria: same criteria as the previous session.

You can see greater intensity and arousal in the video below: if Game’s exercise needs aren’t being met, she turns into a little maniac. She REALLY wants to go for that rooster, and she can’t finish her meal (I learn that if she’s on limited activity, this protocol is setting her up to fail):

My stubbornness pays off!

I stuck with the protocol though, and got to a place where the line would stay loose between the recall and Game returning to me for an uninterrupted meal. (There’s some sessions that I didn’t record.)

Upping the ante: off leash; chickens kept safe behind a fence

Once Game could reliably recall away from chickens without tightening a leash or long line, I found a place she could be off leash, with the chickens safe on the other side of a fence.

Session 10ish:

The rep below is not perfect – you can see Game hesitate before responding; then she realizes there’s no way to get across the fence and comes back. If there had been no fence, the session below would have resulted in a fatality.

Session 11ish:

This one is better: there is the tiniest hesitation (I know what her whiplash turn-on-a-dime-s look like, and this isn’t quite it – but she’s almost got it):

… and we did it: by the subsequent session, I got that perfect turn on a dime with the chickens behind a fence!

The Game plan, part 2: off leash Game with unprotected chickens!

It was time to get some chickens of my own, and up the ante: I wanted to try this off leash and without a fence, and I wasn’t going to subject someone else’s chickens to this experiment.

I LOVE environmental rewards, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to integrate them into the second part of my training plan (here’s where my plan wildly diverges from what Pat Stuart did with his sister’s Greyhound: no cats were going to be harmed in Pat’s training! The questionable ethics you are about to read about are entirely my own.)

The morality of it all

I have no qualms about eating meat, or feeding my dogs meat, and I also have no issues with (quickly) killing an animal in order to eat it. (I do have issues with livestock or wildlife being killed for reasons other than eating.)

I planned on getting two chickens (that way, I’d be able to have at least two reps, even if the first one didn’t go as planned). I’d use the chickens in my training, and then we would eat them. First, I would recall Game away from a chicken in a crate, and reinforce with her usual meal. Then, I’d recall her away from the same chicken outside of the crate, and reinforce with a release to run back and kill the chicken. (I decided that being quickly killed by a dog is no more inhumane than being killed by me, the human. The chicken was going to die and be eaten either way, so using it as a reinforcer seemed morally acceptable to my pragmatic self.)

I was particularly curious about how this experience would translate to the chickens we met in the street: would Game be more likely to engage with me in order to earn that once-in-a-million jackpot of killing (my theory was that she would), or would she become more likely to try and kill on her own time (my theory was that she wouldn’t)? I was determined to find out!

Time to purchase some chickens

I had to run an errand in Antigua, a city some 150km from San Marcos. It was the perfect place to buy chickens from someone I would never see again. I went to a farming supply store that sells chickens, and doesn’t ask questions. And there they were: a big wire cage with lots of poultry crammed in, clucking and sticking their heads out. They were black-and-white barred chickens. My favorite kind, because from a distance, they look like a mad novelist scribbled all over white birds in black ink. They are pretty. I’m sure they are also tasty – if not to humans, then certainly in a raw meal for my dogs. 

I stood there watching the chickens in the cage, and then, just like that, I didn’t want to buy them anymore. It would be lying if I said I couldn’t buy them anymore – it wasn’t that. I’m not particularly sentimental about death; neither my own nor that of another animal. They were going to die sooner or later, and their current life wasn’t exactly amazing. But I looked at their less than ideal existence, crammed into that cage. I imagined their several hours long, less-than-ideal journey back to San Marcos, in a cardboard box, in my hot car. All just to be killed once we got there. It seemed quite pointless, especially since Game and I were going to leave the town of free-roaming poultry soon anyways.

I told myself to remain standing there for another minute, and remind myself of the facts: this was my one chance of buying two chickens far from the scene of the murder I was plotting, and following through on my training plan.

A minute or two later, I still didn’t want to do it. And so I didn’t, because at some point in the last decade, I’ve learned that it is perfectly okay to walk away from a perfectly good plan.

The anticlimactic ending

Game spent the remaining week and a half in San Marcos on a leash around the chickens roaming the streets. And then, we left for Huehuetenango, a city that doesn’t have free roaming chickens – or at the very least, we didn’t meet a single one. I’d like to say that the chicken store chickens lived happily ever after – but that’s pretty unlikely, so I’ll need to end this story on a different note: the feeling I remember. As I walked away from the chicken store, I felt a moment of humaneness. The kind that makes your heart jump. I thought to myself: “I’m humane sometimes. Sometimes, I am kind.” And for a moment, that thought (however misguided it may seem) made me smile. 

Resources mentioned in this post:

Pat Stuart & Glenn Cooke, The Canine Paradigm: Episode 22 – Greyhound Versus Cat (podcast)

Stress cycles

I love discovering parallels in dog and human behavior.

A few weeks ago, Game cracked a tooth. After an epic Mexican veterinary adventure involving a road trip to Mexico City, a beautiful sunset, a couple dead Moray eels, and two dental surgeries, Game is back home, and on the road to recovery.

Not feeling well – the dog angle

When Game is well, she has the sociability of a Golden Retriever. When she’s not okay, she has the sociability of a Malinois. Post surgery, she was clearly in the latter state. I can tell whether she is or isn’t well by looking at her face. There is a subtle difference in the way the muscles in her forehead are either tense or soft, and in the amount of sleep she needs. Sleep all day? Something isn’t going great, and I need to be careful when I’m out and about with her. Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and different mental states track certain behavioral clusters. In Game’s case, not feeling well means that large groups of people (something she generally tolerates extremely well) can cause frustration. This manifests itself, among other things, in a heightened likelihood of barking, lunging, and the temptation to nip at fast-moving strangers. Her threshold for responding to stimuli in the environment plunges.

The human parallel

I sympathize: there’s a parallel in my own behavior. When I am stressed, my threshold for social reactivity (read: lashing out) is lower, too. I have the urge to bite my roommates’ heads off for something minor, feel like yelling at a stranger in the street for looking at my dog too long, want to honk at other drivers, or delete Facebook comments I don’t like, simply because I have the power to, and that’ll show ’em. I explode easily, and knowing that I explode easily stresses me more because I am, at the same time, aware that my stress response is out of proportion to the issue at hand. It’s not about whatever is right in front of me – it’s about trigger stacking on top of a heightened baseline pain level. My self-image is that of someone who is mostly easy to get along with, and always fair. In order to preserve this self-image, I’ll use most of my already depleted energy to focus on self-regulation when I’m around other people whose heads I’d like to bite off. The problem: I can’t focus on self-regulation and recover at the same time – so chances are I’ll be in an equally bad mood the next day, and the day after, and so on.

Back to the canine side of things

At the time of writing, it is 8 days post-surgery, and Game is starting to get back to normal. She’s more active, more likely to pull towards abandoned tortillas (rather than just trotting along with me miserably), and joggers and little children with the audacity to move through public spaces have regained their right to coexist with her.

Today, we went to a store to buy a shower curtain, and on the way back home, we ran into a free-roaming dog. Game was interested in greeting them, and since we were on a big open plaza, I let her off leash. For a few minutes, they ran and chased each other with abandon. I could see Game let loose, her body soften, her goofy self coming out, moving in wide circles, enjoying her laymate’s advances. After a few minutes – shorter than in her perfectly-fine Golden Retriever days – she came back; she was done. I clipped the leash back on, and we continued on home. Already, I could see a change in how she carried herself: loose muscles; a bit of a swagger, less stiffness in her walk.

Now, she’s zonked out, sleeping on the cool tiles in the kitchen – not the sleep of resignation, but the sleep of healthy exhaustion; the sleep of having exercised and having had fun, and having made friends. The sleep that comes with little leg twitches as she’s playing chase in her dream.

Stress-ors and Stre-ss

The fact that she got to play today made a difference for her: today, Game completed the stress cycle started by her toothache and temporarily exacerbated by the surgeries. Amelia and Emily Nagoski explain that we need to not only get over a stress-or (in Game’s case, the cracked tooth, the surgery, and the accompanying pain), but also through the stre-ss (our physiological response) in order to truly leave a stressful event behind us.

There are different ways of completing the stress cycle – one of them is exercise. While I don’t remember this being mentioned in Nagoski’s book, I’d venture another one is play. This would make the combination of the two – play and exercise – a powerful way of completing the stress cycle.

Completing the stress cycle isn’t about the stressor itself (the dental surgery; the pain). Rather, it refers to the physiological release of accumulated stress. (I’m assuming that in this context, “stress” means certain hormones and neurotransmitters and other stuff I wish I knew more about.) My mental image is that of a bucket that has been filled with all kinds of stress-related chemicals over the course of days, weeks, or months – and in order to complete the stress cycle, we need to do more than just turn off the dripping faucets feeding the bucket: we need to dump out the bucket!

Dumping out the bucket

Only when we dump out the bucket does our body realize that the danger has passed; we don’t have to watch our back anymore. Today’s play session emptied out the bucket of accumulated stress for Game, and took her all the way to the other side of the stress tunnel. Earlier the same day, she was already out of physical pain, but she was still in a Malinois state of sociability and tension. Without an opportunity to release the stress, she might have been stuck in the stress tunnel for a long time, her inner Golden Retriever a dog of the past.

How Game’s bucket got filled

Stress has been building up for Game for a while: we’ve been on a road trip, sleeping in different places most days, waiting for me outside new stores, spending long hours in a hot car, and taking leash walks through cities rather than off-leash nature romps. Cracking a tooth, and going to the vet not once, but twice … Lots of changes. Lots of little things that wouldn’t faze a dog like Game as long as they were encountered individually, but which, in combination, build up stress that has no outlet.

Now that the stress is gone, I bet I am going to see other changes in her behavior: I’ll see her return to her usual activity levels, want to meet new people, and cruise through crowded spaces with the swagger of a Golden.

Humans complete stress cycles, too

Grit and I playing our favorite game (pic by Isabelle Grubert).

One of my favorite ways of completing my own stress cycles is playful exercise as well: it’s roughhousing with my dogs. Watching 20-something canine kilos barrell towards you, bracing for the impact, and catching them on a bite sleeve is exhilarating. It requires coordination and concentration. It makes me feel strong. I trust, and I am being trusted. Play-fighting within the rules of the game we established is my perfect stress release: I am completely immersed in this activity. I exist in the current moment in a way I rarely do otherwise. I am moving my body and engaging my muscles in a controlled manner. And I am playing with my dog. Give me a 5-10 minutes of this, and life will be better – at least for the next couple hours. The good thing is that I can go right back for another round if needed!

Roughhousing and rolling on the floor with puppy Game (picture by Isabelle Grubert).

The good news, and the bad news

The bad news: life is stressful. Empty out your bucket, and it’s starting to fill again right away: navigating maskless crowds in supermarkets in a COVID world, being late, the Internet is down, and you’re out of coffee … It’s the little things as well as the big ones, and they just keep coming. All of these are stressors. They are conspiring to turn on the faucets that will continue spitting stress-related neurochemicals into our buckets (the stre-ss).

But there’s good news, too: once we know how to, we can empty out our buckets anytime – even when the stress-ors are still ongoing. I can pick up a bite sleeve and play with my dog until I’m out of breath, and have forgotten everything about the things that aren’t going my way. I’ll feel better, and will be able to not worry about it – until the chemicals in my stress bucket reach a certain level again, and it’s time to empty out the bucket again.

Be your dog’s advocate

Unlike us, our dog’s can’t always choose when to empty their buckets. More often than not, the activities they get to engage in are up to us rather than up to them.

Being aware of Game’s stress response is important because it helps me support her: I can set her up for success. For example, the other day, I met a friend in the crowded center, and we were going to walk up a hill. This is the kind of activity I’d usually bring Game on. Not last week: I knew that the stress of being around strangers would outweigh the benefits of moving her body on a leashed walk. I’ve also told a number of people who wanted to be introduced to her “No” over the last couple of days. Game is a dog who generally enjoys meeting new people – but not when she’s already running low on energy. She can’t speak for herself, so it’s up to me to be her advocate.

How about *your* dog?

What clusters of behavior does distress track for your dog? How do you support them when external stressors lower their threshold, and how do you help them complete the stress cycle? Also: how about yourself?

Below: an excerpt of Game’s stress-release fun, and one of our favorite road trip songs: “Lift your / head up …”

PS: Today, as I hit “publish” on this post, it’s more than 5 weeks post surgery. Game is doing great – especially since she’s finally allowed to play tug, and fetch hard balls again!


Resources mentioned in this post

Nagoski, Amelia & Emily – Burnout

Less is more dogs

Do you have a physically healthy sports dog who is doing what you ask of them … but kind of slowly? Who knows their cues, but gets distracted easily? Who’s physically able to run, but chooses to trot when you call or send them out? Who takes their time picking up the dumbbell, or choosing the correct scent article?

You may be having a less is more dog. Let me tell you about less is more dogs by means of the example of Greyhound Fanta – the bestest dog of them all. Fanta was amazing. He also was a less is more dog.

Training juice as a finite resource

Less is more dogs have a finite amount of play/training juice available in a given week. Training juice is what powers our training and play sessions. How much a less is more dog can put into each session depends on how often you train/play:

Let’s say Fanta has 70 units of training juice a week.

Scenario 1: 

I train/play with Fanta every day for 10 minutes. That makes 70 minutes a week. Fanta needs to spread out his training juice over all the sessions we train/play. 70 units of training juice divided by 70 minutes equals 1 unit of training juice per minute. This manifests in enthusiasm when he’s in a good mood, but most sessions include getting distracted or checking out. I need to work quite hard to keep him engaged, even when we’re working in the living room.

Scenario 2: 

I train/play with Fanta every day for 5 minutes. That makes 35 minutes a week. 70 units divided by 35 minutes equals 2 units of training juice per minute! (Or maybe not; I’ve never been good at math.) 2 is twice as much as 1! Now, Fanta stays mostly engaged. This is more fun!

Scenario 3: 

I train/play with Fanta every second day for 5 minutes: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday – 4 times 5 equals 20 minutes a week. 70 units divided by 20 minutes equals 3.5 units of training juice per minute! Now we’re talking: the fun skyrockets; I have a dog who can engage even in more distracting environments, and who’ll sometimes even push me to play!

An experiment

Have you been doing everything right – using effective reinforcers, keeping your dog physically and mentally healthy – and yet, you can’t help but feel like they are a little bit flat? They might be a less is more dog! There are less is more dogs among all breeds – even traditional working breeds. Let’s find out if your dog is one of them: if they are, there’s a simple trick to getting more bang for your buck in the future! Try the simple experiment below, and report back:

+ For the next two weeks, shorten the length of each play (or training) session – cut it in half, and see what happens. So if you’ve been playing and training for 10 minutes a day, only do 5.

+ Do only half your usual number of play/training sessions overall. If you’ve been training and playing every day, only train and play every second day for the next two weeks.

Of course, your dog will continue having all their other privileges: the usual amount of walks, snuggles, or dog/dog socialization. The only variable you are going to change is the amount of formal play/training. This experiment isn’t about depriving your dog – it’s about slowing down.

Observe what happens to your dog’s play and training attitude, and let me know in the comments!

Travel thoughts E1: dog/dog sociability

I had fun with The Brindle Girl series, and decided to do more video-style posts. I’m hoping this will tie me over until I go back to speaking in front of groups of people. I was going to record these while driving across Guatemala and Mexico – but it turned out that the AC blasting and the car were too much background noise. So I’m only recording these post road trip. They are still travel thoughts, so I’m keeping the name!

The first video post below is my musings about dog/dog sociability. After recording this, I remembered that I recently learned something that contradicts my anecdotal experience: dog breeds, it turns out, are much less predictive of an individual’s behavior and personality traits than we conventionally think they are.

How do we know that? As of today (May 27, 2021), the Darwin’s Ark project has analyzed 3,056,323 answers provided by the owners of 29,233 dogs. At the 2021 Lemonade Conference, Elinor Karlsson explained their approach in a captivating talk that was amazingly understandable even for someone like me, with zero training in data analysis or statistics. If you get a chance to catch one of her presentations – make sure you don’t miss it!

Based on what Elinor Karlsson and colleagues have found, you should take my video musings with a grain of salt! So before you watch my video – here’s the scientific caveat:

In relation to predicting sociability, we’ve learned two things from Darwin’s Ark:

  1. An individual dog’s behavior and personality traits can not accurately be predicted if all we know is their breed.
  2. Dog breeds have some subtle differences in behavior and personality when compared to all (pet) dogs.
    However, these differences are not clear for all factors examined in the Darwin’s Ark project. For example, there are no statistically significant breed differences when it comes to factors like agonistic threshold, and dog sociability – two factors relevant to my musings below.

The Brindle Girl Series – Day 10 (Session 43)

Session #43

+ Since the counter-conditioning strategy has stagnated, I’m curious about how Brindle Girl will repsond if I present the collar loop, and try to lure her into it.

+ I talk about why in general, luring is not the best approach when working with dogs and fear.

When we came back from our walk, Brindle Girl (who we had left sleeping in the shade of the door), was gone. Let’s hope she’ll be back tomorrow – our last day at Cerro de Oro, and my last day of hanging out with my Brindle Friend!

The Brindle Girl Series – Day 9 (Session #42)

Session #42

  • I get a wag hello, and Brindle girl licks my fingers to start us out!
  • I make things easier for her to prevent her from moving away from the collar: approach with the collar – no touch – retreat my hand – cookie.
  • We’ve got an audience today: look at the top of the stairs in the background. It’s Dude Dude Who Wants to Knock Up My Dog!
  • I conclude that I’ll have to rethink my strategy before the next session. Our progress seems to have stagnated – it’s time to change something up! Stay tuned!

The Brindle Girl Series – Day 8 (Sessions 39-41)

Session #39

  • Approach with the collar from above – making things easier than yesterday to not cause her to back up.
  • Rainy season thoughts!

Session #40

  • More collar approaches from above.
  • I talk about wanting to avoid negatively reinforcing the behavior of backing up.
  • Thoughts on classical and operant conditioning always going hand in hand. (I meant to say light can be seen as particles or waves, not particles or rays – oops!)

Session #41

  • Review of my reasons for using a low value treat (kibble).
  • A reminder that my work with this dog is all about the journey – I would not take this approach with a client’s dog, where the goal (putting on a collar) was actually important.

The Brindle Girl Series – Day 6 (Sessions 33-35)

Session #33

First session of brindle girl’s third training week (May 3rd, 2021).

Review: touch without collar – bracelet/collar – holding collar like an object.

Session #34

Holding the collar like an object (rather than a bracelet) is obviously more difficult for her!

Session #35

  • I start easy now that I’m holding the collar like an object: not approaching her all the way.
  • I end up with a nice start-button set-up, and while she isn’t yet comfortable with the collar up close, she gives me several quick start-button looks in a row.
  • Thoughts about patience, and Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince.