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)