JULIA BAYLY

Chickens, from coop to obedience training

Posted March 08, 2012, at 4:53 p.m.
Last modified March 08, 2012, at 7:46 p.m.

I have a new hobby. Of course, it’s not like there is not enough to do here at Rusty Metal Farm to keep a person busy all day, but every so often something pops up on the radar that simply screams, “Gotta try it.”

So friends and neighbors, get ready for chicken obedience training. That’s right — three words I never thought to use in the same sentence: chicken, obedience and training.

What could be more fun than teaching a chicken to come on command?

And before readers (or my editor) ask, no, I am not making this up.

Earlier this week I was doing some online research on dog breed attack statistics, prompted by reports of two pit bulls last week allegedly attacking a small dog while its owner walked it on a leash in Fort Kent.

News of the incident spread pretty quickly in town and spawned a subsequent — albeit short-lived — campaign to petition the town council to ban the breed within the municipality.

The movement ended when it was brought to the organizer’s attention that Maine statutes prohibit the banning of any specific breed of animal within a community.

But I was curious about dog attacks in general and pit bull attacks specifically.

Tucked within all the information was a link to Legacy Canine Behavior & Training operating out of Sequim, Washington.

What caught my attention was not Legacy’s impressive list of canine behaviorists, workshops or dog classes.

It was the tab on its homepage for “Chicken Camps 101 and 201… Become a better trainer by training a chicken!”

Seriously?

According to the site, “training a chicken is a stretch,” no kidding, and is “a boost to your mechanical skills — the average chicken is faster than the average dog [and] chickens don’t give trainers a second chance as often as our dogs do.”

I wonder how many of those faster-than-average chickens it would take to pull the dogsled?

Using the program “Poultry in Motion,” trainers work with their chickens in multiple five-to-10-minute training sessions throughout the day, leading me to conclude that a chicken’s attention span is not the longest thing on the planet.

The training regime promotes coaching skills, “lateral thinking,” and problem solving. I bet it does.

Unlike dogs, chickens will simply fly away if annoyed by how they are being trained.

At Chicken Camp participants learn to observe chicken behavior and how chickens acquire, store and process information.

Eventually, the chickens are trained to complete a set of obedience and agility related tasks including climbing ladders, walking a balance beam and navigating a set of weave-poles.

Which has me thinking once I master chicken obedience, I can set up a chicken agility course.

What makes chicken camp a perfect place to hone dog training skills, the website says, is the fact people come into it with very few preconceived notions on the mechanics of chicken training as they have never trained a chicken before.

They’ve got that right.

Trainers are not bonded to the chickens and chickens do not have big brown eyes nor will the trainers be showing the chickens at a performance event or taking them home, “so there is no pressure on what will happen in the future.”

Again, right on every count. Chickens, in fact, have very beady eyes that — to me anyway — indicate they are contemplating no end of mischief.

In fact, given some of the past antics of my own chickens, I am surprised I have not found them down at the local tavern shooting pool with packs of cigarettes rolled up in their sleeves.

But given that there is a flock of 15 Rusty Metal Chickens out in the coop, I’m thinking the time is ripe to begin my own poultry-training program here on the farm.

Goodness knows over the years the little darlings have used whatever intelligence resides in their pea-sized brain pans to thwart my every move to contain them within their spacious fenced-in yard.

Could teaching them to leap a few hurdles or run through a maze be any harder?

I could even add a bit of friendly rivalry into the mix as there are seven varieties of chickens in my flock and we could have minicompetitions to see which one learns fastest.

It’s really not all that far fetched.

A friend of mine told me her son taught his rooster to ride a bicycle with him.

As a boy, her son would hold the rooster under his arm as he rode through the neighborhood. It got to the point that when the lad pulled out his bike, the rooster came running.

Another friend told me of her niece who routinely walks her chicken around on a leash.

Perhaps I could toss a small — a very small — ball into the mix and start a chicken fly-ball team.

So successful is chicken training in helping people in other areas, it has been used by a commercial fishing operation working out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

Since the management and crew spoke a variety of different languages, they had to come up with a way to improve communication among the crew.

Naturally, chicken training was the answer.

Members of the crew spent a day using “clickers” to teach the chickens various tasks such as walking to a specific spot, climbing on an object and pecking a photo of a flounder and not of a mackerel.

This lead to increased levels of nonchicken-related problem solving and communication training.

It also left me with two questions: Does the ship’s captain now use a clicker to communicate with the crew, and will we be seeing chickens on an upcoming episode of “Deadliest Catch”?

Frankly, I hesitated to even mention the use of chickens for workplace enhancement.

If the management at the BDN suddenly shows up with a batch of chickens in the newsroom, I really hope the reporters and photographers don’t hold me responsible.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award winning writer and photographer, who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at jbaylybdn@gmail.com.

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