Diary of a Chicken Trainer
Day 2, Saturday, July 24, 1999
(Recap of Day 1)
I didn't think to keep a journal until I was already in bed on the first night, so this, the second night, is my first entry, and I'll have to play catch-up. This journal will concentrate more on what we did, rather than what we learned. As time permits, I'll create articles that summarize the wealth of training instruction that the Baileys have shared.
First impressions. Bob and Marian Bailey are delightful. Bob is in better shape and is more active at his age (around 60, I'd guess) than I am at 31. Marian is quite a bit older than he - in her early 80s, I believe - and is physically more frail but just as mentally sharp. They each have a wonderful sense of humor and are genuinely easy to talk to. They are more than willing to share their knowledge but quickly quell any attempt to label them gurus or masters. I adore them. My only reservation is that Bob has observed behavior for so long that he doesn't always react to my statements or actions and doesn't necessarily voice an opinion. It makes me nervous because I'm terrified that he's trying to be diplomatic and internally thinks I'm an idiot.
The hotel has given them two rooms, a training room where we work with the chickens and a lecture room. Each hour we have one lecture period and one training period. Five minutes are given between each change of venue, leaving 50 productive minutes each hour. That 50 minutes isn't always divided evenly, so sometimes we have longer or shorter periods.
On the first day, we started with the 45 minute version of Patient Like the Chipmunks, a video which summarizes the history of the Brelands and the Baileys and of their business, Animal Behavior Enterprises. If you haven't seen this video, it's a worthy addition to your library. It really provides a solid foundation of both the history of applied OC and definitions of the basic principles.
After we watched that video, we watched a short (15-20) minute video on the work that the Baileys and Morgan Spector are doing with Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a service dog program. This video touched me more than Patient Like the Chipmunks. Bob, Marian, and Morgan are quite literally changing the world with this work. The video demonstrates how the handlers are taught the mechanical skills of presenting treats, clicking, and observing behavior - all before the dog is ever brought in. Then you see them learning, step by step, to handle this new companion and partner. The most gratifying, touching moment isn't the success of the handlers, but the frequent, enthusiastic wags of the dogs' tails.
Now we were ready for our first training period. There are 16 students, and we each chose a partner. My partner is Cindy, and I positively adore her - she's my new best friend. Each student has two chickens, one very experienced and one relatively na´ve. Each training period is broken into training sessions lasting between 15 seconds and one minute. Cindy does one session, and I coach her, then I do a session and she coaches me. The short sessions keep us moving fast and concentrating on only one thing at a time. I can't remember what we did during each period. The following is a summary of the day's training tasks.
Training is a mechanical skill. Training is a mechanical skill. Training is a mechanical skill. On the first day, Bob wore a shirt with this slogan on the back, and he said it frequently. His goal on the first day was for us to learn the mechanical steps of clicking and treating a chicken. He didn't start there, however. That was a too-complex behavior. Instead, he broke the behavior into its tiny component parts and taught it step by step. He shaped the behavior, gradually increasing criteria.
First, we had a bit of chicken wrangling. Bob explained to us how to pick up the birds and remove them from their cages. We started by just reaching in and grasping the experienced chicken, feeling it tense and relax. Then we grasped it and lifted. Then we removed it from the cage and put it back in. Then we carried it to the table and set it down, just barely releasing it, then carried it back. Step by step, we got faster and faster as we got more and more comfortable with these strange birds. Then we repeated the whole process with out na´ve birds.
When training chickens, Bob uses a measuring cup with a clicker glued to the handle. That way the person can click and immediately present the cup (lined with grain) as a reinforcement. The criteria in the first training session was to practice presenting food from the front. There was no chicken present, no clicking, and not even any food in the cup. He just wanted us to practice presenting and removing the cup. We each did two sessions, working on speed and calm body language and consistent presentation. Then we did a couple of sessions presenting the cup a slightly different way, then a third way.
Wow! All that, with just an empty cup and no chicken!
Next, we added a tiny bit of pellet feed to the bottom of the cup and practiced presenting it. It was different with the feed, because your speed could potentially sling food, providing free treats to the chicken. You didn't want to be too slow though because the chickens need a quick reinforcement.
Once we were comfortable presenting food, it was time to add the chicken. We still hadn't clicked yet - that was too big of a jump in criteria! We brought the experienced chicken to the table and just practiced presenting and removing the cup of food. What a difference! We had to learn how high to hold the cup for each chicken (because some would try to knock it out of your hand or scatter feed), and we had to practice feeding in the center of the table. If we fed close to us, the chicken would crowd us. We practiced this several times, then did the same with the na´ve chicken.
We were finally ready to add the click. We put the chickens away and practiced without them first. Click, present, remove. Click, present, remove. We had to be sure the click - not a superstitious body movement (leaning in, starting forward with the cup early, etc.) was the conditioned reinforcer. Then we brought out the chickens again. We weren't trying to get a behavior at this point. We were just trying to get used to clicking and presenting. By the time we had done several sessions with each bird, the day was over.
Amazing. We worked from 9:00 to 5:30 that day and we didn't actually click a chicken until the very, very end. It's no wonder, then, that beginning clicker training students get so discombobulated when we hand them a clicker, treats, leash, etc. and say "It's easy - you'll figure it out." Bob said that's a huge mistake. Beginners shouldn't have to figure *anything* out. These are the fundamentals and they should be handed to them bit by bit in easily digestible portions. Using Bob's analogy, a child must learn his ABCs before he can begin to sound out words. You can't give him a book and tell him to "work on it" without first providing the tools to work with.
Training is a mechanical skill. Training is a mechanical skill. Training is a mechanical skill.
By the end of the first day, we were both exhausted and exhilarated. We had dinner on our own - actually almost all of us ended up at the Panda, a Chinese restaurant in town - and finally, I retired to my room to tackle the reading assignment for the second day.
(Recap, Day 2)
Shirt slogan: Bigger, stronger, smarter. Translation: You are bigger, stronger, and smarter than the chicken. (Note that it didn't say faster.)
Today we spent less time in the lecture room because Marian was ill and unable to come in. (She's quite fine - not to worry - and Bob expects her back tomorrow.)
We started the day with a few quick review/warm-up sessions, then we moved into clicking for a behavior - pecking a target. The target was a black paper circle, and the experienced chickens had obviously done a lot of it. Actually, even our na´ve birds had done that particular exercise frequently enough that it wasn't difficult to get the behavior frequently and reliably. The goal was actually not to teach them to peck the target, but to work on our timing of the click.
The sound of the click and the sound of the peck should coincide. Wow. Our coaches stood around and said, "Late. Late. Late. Late. Closer. Late. Late." Gradually we got better, of course. Part of the challenge was to maintain concentration and not get flustered when we made a mistake. It helped that the chickens offered the behavior so frequently that we didn't have time to worry about past trials. Even when we made a mistake, we had to reinforce if we click. Bob is very strict about 1:1 ratio for clicks and treats.
Bob is sharing a ton of invaluable training information and theory with us. One of the things he keeps emphasizing is that our job as trainer is to make the learning as simple as possible for the animal. One click, one treat. No keep going signals or no-reward markers. One criteria per session - never, ever raise a criteria during a session.
To elaborate on that, remember, our sessions were between 15 seconds and one minute. You could also define a session by number of repetitions. He suggests a session of ten repetitions. Morgan Spector likes five. At the end of a session, you evaluate. Is your dog ready to raise the criteria? Is he consistently offering 80% or greater correct responses? If an animal offers 50% or fewer correct responses for three consecutive sessions, the criteria was increased too quickly or too high. At that point, you should re-evaluate and make a different plan. He says you shouldn't ever go to the fourth session (or beyond) of doing the same thing if the animal is getting so few correct responses. (He said if a trainer came to him and said "I've been working for two days trying to fix this problemů" he would look first to fix the trainer, then the problem.
Revel in simplicity!
Another bit of information. Bob listed training methods during his slide show: traditional, Operant Conditioning, clicker training, and other. He doesn't consider Operant Conditioning and clicker training to be synonymous. He doesn't consider himself a clicker trainer. He is an Operant Conditioning trainer. He defines clicker training as R+/P- exclusively.
Another bit. Operant Conditioning is a science that studies behavior and ignores unknown mental processes. It is a technology that changes behavior, not attitudes, not thought-processes.
A final anecdote. Bob has total faith in the method. He says a mountain climber wouldn't rappel down a cliff if he didn't have faith in his equipment. Therefore Bob wouldn't train using OC if he didn't believe in OC. He says, therefore, that if it's a given that the method works, then any problems must be trainer problems, and it's the trainer's responsibility to diagnose and find a solution. (This he says, is assuming the animal is healthy and capable of what you're asking.)
Back to chicken training. Once we were comfortable with the basic targeting (and were improving a bit on our timing), we started our first real exercise: color discrimination. I had three triangles: one blue, one yellow, and one red. We used our experienced chicken, and our first task was to determine which one the chicken had previously been taught to target. Once we identified the colors that the chicken would peck first, second, and third, our job would be to *reverse* the preference.
We placed all three targets at one end of the table, then put the chicken in the middle. My chicken went straight to the red target. I took it away and labeled it as my new "cold" target. Next she pecked the yellow target. That went away to be my "warm" target. That left the blue target to be the new "hot" target. So I put the blue down and started reinforcing it alone, without any other targets there. Gradually, in additional sessions, I strengthened that behavior by moving the target, so she wouldn't generalize it to a specific area. Then I added the "warm" yellow target. I was lucky - my chicken still consistently pecked the blue target.
Then we switched to the na´ve birds - and a different exercise. The experienced birds knew this game. We weren't teaching them new behaviors. But we played a slightly different game with the na´ve bird - shape discrimination (triangle, square, circle) - and they had honestly never played the game before. We started with a square, and the goal was to follow the same process that we would (will) follow to teach color discrimination to the experienced birds. (Note: Because Bob was running short of na´ve birds, a couple of people had two experienced birds. Cindy did. So instead of teaching shape discrimination, which she would learn easily, we were to teach the bird to roll a wooden dowel down the length of a table by pecking it.)
The goal is that by mid-afternoon tomorrow, we will be able to give the bird one hot target and two cold targets and no matter what is done with the cold targets - holding them up, moving them around, putting them in front of the bird's face - the bird will ignore them and peck only the hot target.
Back to the na´ve bird. I did a couple of sessions with the square, then I moved the square around, then I tried adding a triangle. Oops. Too fast - though I didn't realize it right then. The bird switched back and forth between the square and the triangle. Bob warned us not to let that happen more than twice because the bird could develop a chain - "I have to peck this then this." So I solved the problem using extinction. I picked up the *hot* target, leaving only the one that wouldn't earn a reinforcement. I then let the chicken peck, peck, peck without getting reinforcement until the pecking drastically slowed. Then when the bird lifted its head and refrained from pecking, I rewarded it using Premack by putting the hot target down and letting it get reinforced for pecking the right target.
I kind of screwed up. I'm not sure I let the behavior extinguish enough. Basically, I really moved too fast. Bob warned us about moving backwards - he says the behavior is harder to get and not as good the second time around - but I'm going to start from scratch tomorrow. I need to do more square pecking before I add the triangle. The na´ve bird just needs more reps. Duh.
The coolest thing is that Bob isn't saying "Okay, now switch the targets." He outlined the process and then left it to us to analyze our own bird's progress. Incredible!!!
That was the
end of day two's formal learning. Bob took us on a picnic to a nice
dam (Bradley?) and lake. Pretty area. Good barbecue for dinner. (Not
Memphis barbecue, of course, but good on the non-Memphis scale.
Day 3, Sunday, July 25, 1999
Shirt slogan: Timing, criteria, rate.
Today was an emotional rollercoaster. After early success, Cindy and I had a really hard time with three of our four chickens, and we got really frustrated. Today's shirt was "Timing, criteria, rate." I think all of those went to hell at one time or another today.
I did a couple of quick sessions and believed that my experienced chicken was ready to be tested. In Bob's test, he does everything he can (except put food on the cold target) to get the chicken to peck the wrong targets. He removes the hot target completely, taps the cold targets, pushes them at the chicken, even waves them under the chicken's nose. I thought my experience bird was ready to test, but he failed almost immediately by pecking the red target - something he had never done before.
So we went back to proofing. Somehow the whole behavior just seemed to fall apart. He began pecking the red target a lot. I think we and several others were really confused about removing the hot target as soon as the wrong one was pecked. We weren't consistent about doing that, plus we weren't sure about when we should throw down the hot target again.
Then my experienced bird developed another little problem. He began pecking our hands as we tried to shift the targets around. Hard pecking and biting. It made it really difficult to proof the behavior the way Bob would proof it during the test. We had several sessions where we were essentially at a standstill because we couldn't raise the criteria.
Bob suggested feeding the bird away from the targets. I did one session of that and wasn't really thrilled. My mechanical skills seemed to fall apart, and he would still chase our hands. So I tried a solutions that appears - I guess I'll know tomorrow - to have worked: extinction. I pulled the hot target, stuck my hand down there and let him have at it. Okay, it wasn't particularly fun, but by the end of the session, we were able to really proof the bird (with hands constantly present and moving) and not get pecked.
Interspersed with training my experienced bird, I worked on shape discrimination with my na´ve bird. I made assumptions about the training goals that I shouldn't have. I felt like Bob believed we could have the na´ve bird doing the full shape discrimination by mid-afternoon. Wrong. Bob is much less interested in the progress the bird makes than in the progress the trainer makes. Because of my assumption, though, I felt rushed and didn't spend the time on the basics that I might otherwise have spent.
Next, I didn't have a good concept of how long it should take to get a discrimination. The experienced birds figure this stuff out really quickly. I knew the na´ve bird would be slower, but I didn't know how much slower. Because I had an incorrect, preconceived belief that Bob wanted us to make a certain amount of progress in a certain amount of time, I felt like I must be doing something wrong because my bird wasn't "getting it." When we asked Bob for help, he reassured us that we were doing the right things and that the bird was learning just fine.
I felt much better. Still, I spent a lot of the day frustrated because my bird wasn't making the progress I thought he should make. Basically, we spent the day discriminating between the square (hot) and the triangle. Yes, the behavior is much, much stronger now, and we get far fewer errors. I just wish I had known all along that the progress was normal.
Cindy's experienced bird passed his color discrimination test late this afternoon. Her na´ve bird (which actually is another experienced bird) is doing splendidly with the dowel. The bird will fairly consistently roll the dowel from the midpoint of the table. We've pretty much faded the target dot that we originally added to the center of the dowel. The biggest problem now - which seems to be coming along - is getting the bird to consistently peck the center of the dowel rather than a side.
Tomorrow afternoon we're going to switch to rubber band pulling. Oh, Marian was back today. We have the evening off, so I'm ordering pizza and typing up my notes. Everyone else is going out for Thai food. I love Thai, but I'm going through computer withdrawal, and I figure I ought to get my notes typed in before they get out of control.
Day 4, Monday, July 26, 1999
Shirt slogan: Get the behavior.
We started off this morning discussing the progress of the class. Bob tried an experiment with our class and made our class much less structured (starting about halfway through the second day) than he usually does. But many people have gotten frustrated and feel as though they're not getting the guidance they need to make progress - in fact, they feel as though their training is falling apart. (I'm glad to know I'm not the only one.)
I felt more confident going into today's session. We evaluated each bird. My experienced bird seemed to be sliding backwards. In the proofing part, it seems like he's more willing - not less - to peck the cold targets. He's definitely back to biting and pecking hands. Ouch. At lunch I removed my wedding band and sparkling diamond engagement ring, wondering if that weren't enticing him. Bob tested him and said not to worry, the proofing was going fine. We'll see, I guess.
My timing for removing the hot target is awful, so I expect that isn't helping matters. Basically, with the same precision (and timing) as a click, the hot target should be removed when the chicken pecks the cold target. That way the removal of the hot target becomes slightly aversive. My timing is so bad that even if it's aversive, the bird won't make the connection that it was caused by pecking the wrong target. Trainer error.
After lunch, Bob decided to let the three target birds go ahead and try stimulus reversal. My experienced bird got it in three sessions. I'm not sure if it was my skill at shaping or blind luck. I'm voting for blind luck. It's irrelevant though - we got the behavior.
My na´ve bird was ready to add the third target this morning. Our biggest problem was mechanical - we weren't very good at shifting or at removing the hot target. Same problem as before - same trainer. By mid-afternoon the three target discrimination was fairly strong. It wasn't proofed by any means, but it was coming along. Bob told us to go ahead and try the stimulus reversal. I think he got that in four sessions. I was very, very pleased. Again, I think it was luck, but it definitely pumped my ego a bit.
Tonight we took a dinner cruise aboard the Belle of Hot Springs. There was a full moon, and the temperature dropped to a lovely temperature. We were really pleased because the heat index hit 117 at one point today. Hard to believe there's only one day left. We want to all take the same advanced course next year.
Day 5, Tuesday, July 27, 1999
Shirt slogan: You're late. On the front: Believe.
Well, today was our last day. I was a little sad all day thinking of all the "lasts": last breakfast, last group chat in the morning, last lunch chat with Bob, last round with the chickens, last lecture with Marian.
This morning Bob discussed the idea of philosophy with us - why we should have a training philosophy and what his and Marian's training philosophy is. It was one of my favorite lectures of the whole week. The lesson: Believe. Believe in what you're doing. Believe in the method.
After the lecture, we taught the chickens a new behavior: to pull a rubber band. Once we were getting strong pulls (stretching the rubber band 18 inches), we attached the rubber bands to wooden blocks and taught the chickens to pull them down the table.
The chickens were actually quite experienced at this, though a few had been taught some bad habits. The point to this exercise was to practice training nondiscrete behaviors. Discrete behaviors, such as pecking, are clear events so it's easy to identify when to click. Nondiscrete behaviors are not specific events so the trainer must decide the clicking criteria. For example, we clicked when the chicken stretched the rubber band past an arbitrary point.
Finally, around 3:00, Bob handed out the certificates. As each name was called, the class would cheer and clap. I almost cried. The most special part of this class was the people. I made so many friends here, and I'm going to miss them terribly. Especially Cindy. I definitely had the best partner in the class.
And then it was over. We tied up a few loose ends, but really the day was over. Candee had offered to give me a ride to Little Rock, so she and I got to chat for another hour or so. Now I'm in my hotel, and my vacation is over. I'll never forget it.
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