Clicker Training Chickens

Our new pullets aren’t as used to being handled as were our last flock of hens. And because they don’t come when called, they can’t leave the chicken run to wander the yard.

So I’m working on training them. I know I could do more, but for now all I’m doing is taking special treats to them once a day and feeding them while making my chicken call (cheeck-cheeck-cheeck). They’re beginning to associate me and the call with treats. This doesn’t mean they trust me yet, but at least they have started making greeting noises when they see me. I hunker down in the run with the treats and hold very still. I put the treats close to me and make them come near to get them. The boldest one will sometimes take a treat from my hand.

This may work eventually. Or I could step up my game. Do you know that chickens can be clicker trained? My dog trainer friend tells me that in dog training seminars, trainers are often taught clicker training (a form of positive reinforcement) with chickens instead of dogs. This is because chickens are 100% food motivated and learn fast. Also, using hens takes away the potential mind games that occur between dog and trainer. Free of that distraction, the trainer learns the correct rhythm for training. It’s pure stimulus-response–reward.

Here’s a video of a chick learning the basics. You can find others of this sort on Youtube:

You might be able to find a chicken training seminar in your area, probably under the banner of dog training. With the rise of urban chicken-pets I think there is opportunity to be had in offering classes for would be chicken trainers. Googling around, I found this one in Lake Oswego, Oregon which is booked months in advance.

Have you trained your chickens to do anything?

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  1. I went to the Bob Bailey clicker workshop (he and his wife Marion were the ones who traveled the country with a trailer full of chickens and gave the first workshops -BTW, he also trained crows and cats to spy during the Cold War.) For my children’s book, Tillie Lays an Egg, I trained all 7 hens to follow a target stick and pose for the camera. That’s how I got the photos for the book. But, honestly, without another photo shoot coming up, my flock doesn’t know any tricks anymore, why bother? (my dogs and goats are another story!)

  2. I haven’t really “trained” them, but since I only put their feed out at night the rush me every time I go outside, so I don’t really have the “come when called” problem. However, I’d like them to trust me enough to let me pick them up. I was picking them up when they were little and then got busy (imagine that) and now they won’t let me anymore.

  3. When my girls were chicks they loved being picked up and handled. Then they got to be about 10 weeks old and they did not want to have anything to do with me! Then, after they started laying, they were back to wanting to be picked up and handled.

    So maybe it is a teenager phase? I have noticed pullets are generally flightier and more nervous than mature birds.

  4. When my 10 chicks were a week old, I knew I wanted them to be trained to come to me. Food was the motivator, I knew. I did not want to be calling “chick, chick” all the time or clicking “chk, chk” all the time.

    I would say in a high, drawn out tone, “dee-lie-laah” each time I brought food. One day, a friend was here, and I told him to watch the chicks in their clear plastic box. He did. I went to the kitchen and said my weird Delilah call. He was laughing, asking me why they were standing four deep/high in the corner nearest my eventual approach.

    Now, three years later, they still come when I call. The other thing I do is to always feed in the pen. Sometimes exbf goes to feed them. They rush to him, see food and run to the pen to wait on him. Even the new hen who was not trained as a chick knows what is happening with my call.

    When they are obviously full and wary of being locked up when I need to leave in the middle of the day, refusing to step foot in the pen, I have another ploy after they respond to my call and just don’t want to be locked up.

    Hens just cannot resist the sight of a sprinkle of oats or corn falling, obviously. So, a sprinkle of oats lures them. Sometimes, infuriatingly, they stand just outside the pen while I sprinkle a half dozen pieces of oats. One at a time, the three of them come inside while I dump the rest of the oats or corn and quickly lock them in.

    Only feed them in the pen, even if you are not locking them up. Resist the urge to feed them as you sit and watch them or just toss things out the door. It was two years before I gave mine any food that was not placed in the pen. Now, we can sit and shell peanuts and feed them. When we sit down with food or drink, they come eagerly expecting food. I really don’t want them to jump on tables. So far, they have not tried to jump on any of my yard tables. The occassional stale piece of bread can be ripped up and thrown out the door without me fearing I am undoing their training.

    When I got my hens, I read and watched all the clicker training information I could find–fascinating!

    Another thing–I used a yellow, half cup, tupperware container for their oats. Eventually, the just saw the cup and ran to me. I would shake it all the way to the pen. Now, any container shaken with oats or anything that “rattles” gets their attention, even when they cannot see me. You know oats are not loud, so they have keen hearing! They can hear it from the other side of the house. I sort of used the Pavlov’s dog idea to transfer the response.

  5. Very cool – thanks for sharing.

    As a slightly tangental question, what type of coop do you have in your backyard? I can see what looks to be an A-Frame run in the one picture, but I was curious to know more (but couldn’t find any keywords or links on your blog). We are looking to build a new coop for our growing flock and I was looking for other ideas/suggestions as a DIY project.

    Thanks again.

    • JW–the A-frame is the run. As for the rest of the coop you have inspired me to finally get around to shooting some video. Will try to do a post about the rest of the coop soon. In the meantime I’d say the most important thing is predator proofing. Raccoons are strong–use 1/2″ hardware cloth, not chicken wire and use heavy duty galvanized staples to secure that hardware cloth. We also have a coop plan and guidence in our second book Making It.

    • I appreciate it – looking forward to the video. And I’ll have to go thumb through Making It again, which has been on my shelf for a while but forgot that there was a coop project in it.

      Best Regards.

  6. If you get some mealworms (live or freeze dried), and a can or jar filled with something noisy, you can train them in no time. Rattle your noisemaker, sprinkle some mealworms and watch the crack-head antics. They’ll come running to the sound you make expecting a fix, if you ONLY feed the mealworms when you need them to come running. Or substitute whatever other high-value food you want, but mealworms are the ticket for my girls.

    • Cynthia,
      Obviously, my girls are easy since oats does it for them. LOL Actually, I rattled cheerios once (out of oats)and they seemed pleased. They can hear oats or cheerios rattling in Tupperware! Crack-head antics is so true.

  7. My hens come when I call them, and they will also squat down on the ground when the kids and I reach out and let us pet them. It’s pretty funny.

  8. I’ve never trained my chickens, though they do tend to assume I have food and rush over when I go near them.

    The ducks are (pretty well) trained to go to bed when I tell them though. They know what it means and will do it most of the time, but if I go out too early and they’re not ready for bed they run under the children’s trampoline that makes up one end of their run, where they can’t be rounded up!
    On the other hand, they have me fully trained. They complain loudly if their food is getting low, the chickens are allowed out to free range and they’re not or if I take the chickens treats and not them.

  9. I haven’t trained chickens but I want to share a link to a 6-minute video that was bounced to me on facebook about “the lexicon of sustainability”. The video explains cage-free vs. free-range vs. the new term: pastured. I immediately thought of you guys and some of your past posts that rant against egg labeling. And truly, thanks for being the first to make me aware of the misleading marketing.


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