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)

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!

How to quit stuff and be happy instead (a post about people rather than dogs)

I’m still reading The Science of Consequences, and yet another fascinating fact just caught my attention: quitting (1). There’s a chapter on addictions. What I found most interesting is the paragraph about smoking. I like the “smoking” example, because smoking is a nice metaphor for almost anything you’d like to stop doing. Smoking is less hard to quit than certain illegal drugs (the reinforcement value and withdrawal agony of which are greater), and (as someone who smoked for 10 years and then quit), I would venture that the nature of a cigarette addiction is similar to that of other common addictions: drinking, eating, buying things on the Internet. What do these addictions have in common? They are respectable addictions – we can indulge them in public -, and their reinforcement value increases with the amount of stress we experience in our lives, and they often include a peer pressure element. So what did the studies find about smoking, and how can we take advantage of tit?

1. Cash incentives

Studies found that cash incentives increase people’s chance of quitting smoking. (Programs designed that way do not necessarily require lots of public funding: there are programs who ask people to put up their own money and then earn it back – or lose it, if they give in to the temptation.)

2. Shaping is more effective than quitting cold turkey

A study of heavy smokers who wanted to quit was put into two groups: one group were asked to quit cold turkey, i.e. from one day to the next. The other group was shaped: they were asked to smoke less and less every day. In both cases, people who successfully managed to not smoke were reinforced with money. Almost fifty percent of the shaping group succeeded in quitting, but only a third of the cold turkey group succeeded.

3. Progressive schedules of reinforcement are more effective than fixed ones

Another study compared fixed and progressive schedules. (In the fixed schedule, the reward was always the same, in the progressive schedule, the rewards got smaller over time.) Both groups were twice as likely to quit as the control group (who also wanted to quit, but didn’t get positively reinforced for not smoking). However, participants on the progressive schedule were least likely to relapse after the end of the program.

These three findings about studies are all you need to know to quit your own bad habits. What’s a bad habit? Well, anything you’d like to stop doing. Here’s how:

1. You don’t need a fancy program to take advantage of cash incentives. Just ask a friend to help you quit, give her a substantial amount of your hard-earned money, and set up a contract specifying under what circumstances you get your money back. Maybe you get 10/20/100/500 euros for every day/every weekend you don’t have a drink, or don’t snack on sweet temptations?

If you want to integrate punishment in your treatment plan as well, specify in the contract that for every drink/chocolate bar you have, your friend must donate 10/20/100/500 euros (your euros, which will be lost forever!) to an organization you despise, such as a cult, a right-wing political organization, or the sports team you hate.

2. Don’t force yourself to stop your addictions from one day to the next, but gradually decrease their extent. If, for example, you used to drink 20 bottles of beer every weekend, on the first weekend of your therapy plan, you’ll limit yourself to 15 bottles, on the second weekend, to 10 bottles etc. If you used to eat 5 chocolate bars ever day, only have four and a half on day one, four on day two, three and a half on day three etc.

3. Design a progressive reinforcement schedule with your friend. In the beginning, you’ll earn back a lot of money for not engaging in your favorite vices. Gradually, the amount of money you make will decrease. This way, you are most likely to stay “clean” after you’ve earned all your money back.

(1) Schneider, Susan M.: The Science of Consequences. p. 230-33.