I went through the picture in my head. Chicken number one climbs up the ladder, onto a one-foot-wide platform, makes a 180-degree turn and tightropes across a narrow bridge to a second platform, where it pecks a tethered ping-pong ball, sending the ball in an arc around its post. The chicken then turns 180 degrees and negotiates a second ladder back down to ground level, where it encounters a yellow bowling pin and a blue bowling pin in random arrangement. It knocks the yellow one down first and then the blue one.
Chicken number two grasps a loop tied to a bread pan and with one continuous pull drags the pan two feet. Then, in a separate segment, it pecks a vertical one-centimeter black dot on cue and only on cue three times in 15 seconds. The cue is a red laser dot.
Scenes from a Saturday morning cartoon? A twisted scheme of some sort? Neither of the above. It’s the assigned mission at the August 2000 Advanced Operant Conditioning Workshop (a.k.a. chicken training camp), taught by Bob Bailey and psychologist Marian Breland-Bailey. Nine animal trainers from the U.S. and Canada, including myself, are here to meet the challenge. We have five days. Sounds like a joke, but it’s serious business. We’re here not just to train chickens. We’re here to learn the intricacies of a universal mechanism of learning called operant conditioning.
Elucidated in the early 1900s by psychologist B. F. Skinner, this theory says that if you reinforce a behavior, it’s more likely to occur again. If you don’t reinforce it, it’s less likely to occur again. Says Marian Breland-Bailey, “Animals are learning all the time, not just during training sessions. And they’re learning with the same principles. Operant conditioning is the way that behavior changes in the real world.” As experienced trainers, we know this. We hope that with a better grasp of the principles of operant conditioning, we can catapult ourselves to a new level of training.
The nine of us form a diverse group. Some train animals professionally for theater or advertising, some have competed avidly in canine obedience trials or have been dog training instructors for years and others just enjoy training their own assortment of pets. Despite our varied backgrounds, we all envision the myriad of benefits these five days will bring forth. When we’re finished we’ll return home to train our clients’ animals more efficiently, to accomplish more with our own pets and to instruct our students
For Marie Gulliford, who has trained everything from cockatoos to pigs, horses and cows, one of the greatest benefits will be in her grooming shop. “I train the dogs who come in for grooming for my own benefit. My grooming shop is a business for profit. It’s much more profitable if you can groom the dog quickly and it’s easier to do that on a dog that behaves well than on one that’s doing all sorts of extraneous behaviors such as jumping off the table or biting you.”
It’s no accident that we’ve chosen this particular training camp to help us fulfill our training goals. Sue Ailsby, a retired obedience and conformation judge who’s been training dogs for 38 years, expresses the group sentiment: “This course offers an absolutely unique blend of scientific facts and practical applications thereof.” Ailsby, who’s trained dogs for every legitimate dog sport and competed in most of them and who’s also trained a number of service dogs including her own, frequently lectures at training, handling and conformation seminars. With her years of experience, she’s chosen to train here because, “The Baileys do it better, they do it faster and do it with a deeper background.”