In fact, the methods have become so ubiquitous that trainers have forgotten where the methods originated. Says Bob Bailey, “There’s one area that I think has been overlooked for a long time and that is that it was the Brelands, even beyond Skinner and the other psychologists, who realized the significance and widespread application of the bridging stimulus. That it would be a revolution in animal training. They recognized it as absolutely key to the widespread training and this was back in 1943.”
And they were right. The bridging stimulus, usually a whistle or a click from a toy clicker, is now used in virtually all marine mammal shows and in training of zoo animals for husbandry behaviors. And, over 40 years after the Brelands first introduced it for use in dogs, it’s finally taken off in the dog training world in the form of clicker training.
We use clicker training with the chickens too. In the beginning operant conditioning workshops, our chickens are trained that a click means food is coming. Now we use the sound to bridge the gap between the behavior we want and the food reinforcement. The bridging stimulus allows us to tell the chicken precisely when it’s doing something right.
While few of us will ever train a chicken again, there are many reasons beyond novelty why we use chickens in this workshop. For one, chickens are so quick that our timing has to be right on. The timing required to train the average dog won’t hack it with chickens. A fraction of a second off and you get a chicken who pecks the red cue dot instead of the black target, who shakes the loop attached to the bread pan rather than pulling it or who grasps the ping-pong ball rather than pecking it. Secondly, chickens are particularly skillful at telling us that we need to up the rate of reinforcement. Failure to do so and our fowl friend is running around on the floor in search of food instead of up on the training table learning her tasks.
And the benefits go on. Says Bob Bailey, “A chicken is the best teaching tool for training animals, offering more behaviors and more repetitions in the shortest amount of time.” More repetitions means we can train more behaviors in a short amount of time, and we have more chances to recover from our training blunders.
Yes, even though we’re in the advanced class, we still make our share of mistakes. The difference is that now we know within several five-minute sessions when we’ve made a mistake. Every session we take notes. How many times did we reinforce the chicken for the correct behavior? What percentage of time did the bird offer the correct behavior? By keeping these records we can make better decisions on when to expect more from our bird and when we’ve messed up.
Now, where we would have attributed slow learning to the dim-witted chicken, we instead look for our errors, in timing, rate of reinforcement or consistency. Are we always reinforcing the exact same behavior or do our criteria change from trial to trial thus confusing the chicken? We also record the number of times we reinforce the wrong behavior. A few of these in a row and we’re back to square one. It’s an uphill battle for us, but we’re determined to get the most out of it. And we do. On day five, after a total of 60 to 90 minutes of training per chicken per day, we’ve done it. It’s a room full of poultry performing on cue like pros. Up the ladder, turn 180 degrees, across the bridge, peck the ping-pong ball, turn 180 degrees, down the ladder and then whap! whap! First the yellow bowling pin, then the blue. Click! Treat! Voilà! A flock of trained chickens and nine happy trainers.