Archive for August, 2009

[Note: Rita’s back for the last day!]

Today is the last day of Chicken Camp. We had our last training sessions in the morning, when we trained our partner’s chickens, and then one final one in the afternoon right after lunch when we finally got to train our own for 20 minutes. Then, evaluation time.

Bob circled around the tables with everybody in tow to see the show. Each one of us got to demonstrate what our birds where capable of. This time it was the chicken “owner” who was going to reinforce the bird. A few of us had some very good behaviors, with the chickens performing the whole obstacle course for only one reinforcement at the end. Other birds needed a few clicks and feed here and there, but overall, everyone did a good job. And, everybody was still talking to their partner. Even Bob complimented us on being one of the best classes for pulling through the week with humor and light spirits.

My first chicken, my best chicken, missed the tunnel. And to think that was the behavior she knew the best. Down the poles she went, weaving beautifully, and then, instead of marching into the tunnel, left she turned straight onto the A-frame. Grrr. Oh well, out of sheer exhaustion after 5 intense days, I took it.

My second chicken did comparatively better. While I had to reinforce her a lot through the poles, she managed to do the entire obstacle and hit the finish line with her head high (so to speak; she is a pecker). This little bird has been my best teacher this week. She started out on Thursday by offering behavior at a slower rate than the first one. By Saturday, she was not moving – it was like having a frozen chicken on the table. What happened?

What happened was that I had taught her to be even slower.

I thought a lot last night about this little bird, where my mistakes had been with her, and then it hit me: labels. Since the beginning she had been my “slow” bird. She is slow, she needs a lot of help to get her going. She is not getting it, so present the cup a lot to get her moving. This way of thinking about her got me to lower my expectations and I started asking less and less of her, to a point where I stunted her learning. She became incapable of offering behavior because I stopped asking her to.

It fills me with sadness to think that I failed her. I think of all the animals in captivity, and all the humans, whose growing potential is similarly stunted just because of a careless label – “He is dumb”, “She’ll never get it”. But I am also filled with gratitude for this little chicken for the huge lesson she taught me this week. I can’t take the chicken home, but I will take her teachings with me.

So, the end. Tomorrow we fly back to the US. Time went fast in Borlange.
And to quote Bob:

“Are we better off today than we were 3 weeks ago?”



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[Note: Rita took a break today.  So, Wendy wrote about her day at Chicken Camp!]

Today was our last full day to teach our partners to train our birds. In the morning, my partner and I were still struggling to get the tunnel behavior. I had one chicken who was terrified of the tunnel, so much so that it would walk backward and slide around the table. My other chicken and my partner’s two chickens were also frightened with the tunnel, and so we spent roughly 20 minutes with each bird this morning to continue our desensitization and counter-conditioning program. The idea was simply to feed the animal as much as possible near the tunnel to address the respondent fear behavior while also training the operant behavior of walking through the tunnel for reinforcement.

We progressed to the point where my chickens would walk through the fully extended tunnel, and my partner’s chickens would walk through a half-shortened tunnel. We strengthened the behavior on my chickens by introducing the next component in the chain, the A-Frame. While the tunnel behavior was not 80-90% fluent and we normally would not put the behavior into a chain at this point, we decided to see what would happen if we introduced the A-Frame. The thought was that since the entrance to the A-Frame was near the tunnel’s exit that the chicken would receive immediate reinforcement (that is, the opportunity to perform the next behavior) as it came out of the tunnel. It worked magnificently and really strengthened the tunnel behavior. During the lunch break, I convinced my partner to try this design with his birds, the ones I was training. As it would turn out in the first session after the lunch break, we were able to get the tunnel and A-Frame behavior for his birds as well. (Note: This design will not work 100% of the time, but sometimes it’s worth at least giving it a try.) We were really happy with each other, our communication, and our chickens.

While desensitizing the tunnel over two and a half days, we also maintained the behavior, so we were eager to see what would happen when we introduced that first part of the chain. While maintaining a high level of reinforcement through the weave poles (a segment we worked little on during the morning), we got the chain for all of the birds. We then started to fade out and vary the number of reinforcements, and the chain still maintained. We even have one bird each that crosses over into the tunnel, although Bob gave us permission to train the birds to go straight into the tunnel if that’s what they offered — since we had spent so much time to desensitize the tunnel.

Bob and Marie were really surprised that all of our chickens were initially frightened (and one, terrified) of the tunnel. Bob would come by and observe our sessions and comment that the training looked good and that we were doing what we needed to do — that positive feedback was really appreciated. Typically, the chickens are nervous at first but the chickens soon realize that it’s a very easy behavior to get reinforcement. As frustrating as it might be sometimes to desensitize an animal to something, you learn a lot by going through the process. I had a similar experience last week in the chaining workshop, and I am so grateful to have had these opportunities to improve my skills as a trainer.

The best part of the day though was when my partner thanked me for a good day before we left for the evening. We had such great communication throughout the day, helped each other implement the plans, discussed what behaviors we saw, and made changes as necessary. We focused on positive feedback by pointing out the things we were doing right while executing the plan of the other. Instead of noting the obvious mistakes (late clicks, missed opportunities, etc.), we knew the other was aware of such and viewed those mistakes as learning opportunities.

We have two or three training sessions tomorrow morning to strengthen the chained behaviors. After lunch, we will get our chickens back (the ones our partners trained via our instructions) and spend one session training them. Our goal is simply to maintain the behaviors since our training has been a team effort from the beginning. Then, we will watch each trainer demonstrate the behavior of his/her chickens during the evaluation. I’m not concerned about the evaluation, as I’ve achieved my own goals this week — changing my behavior in response to the animal, and improving my skills as both a trainer and a teacher.

For more information about Chicken Camp, visit http://www.house-of-learning.se.

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A short recap of the last two days’ activity. We have been training, training, training. Oh yes, training our partner’s chicken and through our partner, of course. It has been an interesting journey. For the most part, people are getting along fine and most are still talking to each other and acting friendly.

But today (Friday) the first signs of tension started to come. This is the day the pressure came on, since we MUST have got the 3 behaviors – A-frame, tunnel, and pole weaving – for both chickens. Tomorrow (Saturday) we will need to assemble the pieces together and rehearse for Sunday’s demos. So we are all starting to feel, uhm, pressured to get results.

I saw a few people snapping at each other. A small drama going on between two, with one self-proclaimed frustrated by noon and shedding a tear or two by mid afternoon. Hopefully things got sorted out by evening as I saw the two parties immersed in a long conversation with each other. The human behavior going on in this workshop is certainly very interesting.

I got my first bird going on the poles, she does it at least once for only one reinforcement at the very end. I am also close to chaining the A frame and tunnel, and by tomorrow I should have all the pieces together. The second chicken… I don’t want to talk about it 🙂

That’s it. I need to go now. We have the social dinner now, with a traditional Swedish spread of foods – the locals call it a Smorgasbord. Bon appetit! Or rather, Smaklig maltid!

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Today we started our third and last workshop: Teaching. This class is all about teaching other people how to train your chicken to do a chain of behaviors. The goals, as Bob explained, are to

  1. 1) learn to communicate in a clear, effective way; and
  2. 2) learn to follow instructions.

It will be a good lesson for all of us.

The procedure is as follows. As usual, we are in groups of two. Each of us is a trainer and a coach: we train the other person’s chickens following their instructions, which are prepared by them (the coach) the night before and written with great detail. Things like when and where to click and feed, what to look for to feed, down to the smallest elements of the response, need to be worked out for the trainer to be able to train with precision. So each day we have homework.

The chain of behaviors is: start at one end of the table, pass a cone (WITHOUT going around it in a loop – devious Bob!), weave through a set of poles, going into a tunnel, coming out a tunnel (shaped as an arc at the other end of the table), walking up and down an A frame, ending at the start. Again, later I will see if I can post a picture of the diabolical

Today we went through the usual preliminaries – refreshing our cup presenting and clicker pressing skills, choosing the chickens, evaluating their feeding response, and how they reacted to the clicker. Then it was time to “Ask the animal”. We put our chicken down on the table to see what she got. In my case… nothing. They tried to go around the cone, so off the table went the cone. They looked at the poles like Uh?, skipped the tunnel completely, and took their sweet time to even put one foot on the A-frame.  My partner, Louise, did not score much better either.

Clearly I’ve got a lot work to do. Or rather, THINK, PLAN, and DO.

Speaking of which, it’s time for me  to start writing my plan for tomorrow. I think I’ll start with the A frame. This looks simple enough to give my partner and I an opportunity to get acquainted with each other, and gain some confidence. I also want to start making some deposits in Louise’s trust account by reinforcing her for what she does well. My goal is to get to the end of the class with a well-trained chicken AND a partner who’s still talking to me. Isn’t this the main purpose of this workshop?

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Evaluation day! The morning started with some final training sessions. Bob warned us that now was NOT the time to push the bird for more behavior, but rather we should wisely use the training time to achieve specific goals that would maintain the learned behavior(s) and sustain the work performed in the previous days. He had us write down a specific plan for what we intended to achieve in each of the remaining sessions, and then polled us randomly to discuss it.

My plan was simple: maintain the walk on the apparatus with the discrimination behavior on the platform for both chickens; and chain the cone behavior to the descent from the ladder for my first bird. Unfortunately I did not get the “count” – my chick did not learn to stop on her own after three loops around the cones. I suspect I needed many more repetitions for her to learn the pattern.

After lunch (BTW, meals are very good, prepared at a local restaurant), it was time for the closing phases of the class. First, delivery of the certificates of completion of the camp with the mandatory picture together with Bob. I hope I did not close my eyes, as I always do.

Then, evaluation time. Each student demonstrated the behaviors their chickens had learned in front of the whole class. Most chickens did well, performing the chain without hesitation. In a few cases the behaviors crashed, perhaps due to a change in the stimulus picture or maybe poor planning on the part of the trainer? Almost everyone picked discrimination behaviors involving colors, and additional non-discrete behaviors were tossing an object off the platform, pushing a ball into a gully, pulling a rubber band. The prize for the most creative chain goes to Henriette, a dog trainer from Denmark. Her chain consisted of the chicken going into a tunnel, climbing up the ladder, walking across the bar, tossing an object off the platform, walking down the ladder, into another tunnel, and finally pecking the eye of an M&M toy delivering a pellet. I took a video of this and as soon as I figure out how to download it to my computer I will post it.

Our evaluations went well. My chickens performed smoothly. My highpoint was when Bob complimented me on my quiet behavior, remarking how much I had improved since last week. He noticed! Wendy’s first chicken was a riot. She was so slow, it took 3 minutes to complete the whole behavior. She even dropped a little present on the platform and stopped to look at it. People had tears in their eyes from how much they were laughing. Wendy has done wonderfully with this chicken, who at the beginning would not even look at the apparatus. Her second chicken went faster.

All in all, a good day. We ended it by treating ourselves at a nearby Italian restaurant, La Cantina. Today and tomorrow we are relaxing (much needed). Wednesday the third, and last, Camp will start: Teaching. This one promises to be even more intense than the previous two. We will be paired up in groups of two and each one will have to write a very detailed training plan for the other person to teach their chicken a behavior. A lesson in giving and following instructions. A potential war of egos?

We’ll see what happens. It’s only 10 in the morning, but I think I will take a little nap now…

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[Note: Just a reminder, the Chicken Camp posts are from Rita!]

The end of a very intense day at Chaining Camp. We are completely exhausted! Aside for the training, Borlange is experiencing an unusual heat wave with tempeatures of 88 F and of course, no air conditioning. It is quite stifling inside the barn and the late afternoon sessions are very trying on everyone, including the chickens. But we continue heroically, since tomorrow is evaluation day.

By now our chickens have learned to walk on the entire apparatus for one reinforcement at the very end. This is the basic requirement of the class, so we are confident we have met the goal. Additionally, we are now working on adding two more behaviors, one performed before getting on the apparatus and one on the apparatus. One has to be a discrimination task (color, shape, etc) and one a non-discrete behavior that exercises our criteria-setting skills.

Wendy and I picked color discrimination for all our chickens. They have to knock off the platform a pin of a given color during their walk. For the extra behavior, I picked going around two cones for my best chicken, and pushing a toy truck into a carport for the second one.

The cone behavior consists of three rounds around the cones a few inches apart at the end of the apparatus walk (after coming down the ladder) and then, the chicken is required to stop by herself. In other words, she has to learn to “count” the loops. This afternoon I chained it to the ladder and the pins, and tomorrow I will have to work a little more on teaching the pattern to the chicken. We are almost there, we’ll see what happens.

Wendy is also doing very well, considering her chickens had a slow start with the apparatus. They both learned to discriminate but still they do not have those transitions on the apparatus down pat. She is working on smoothing them out.

My behavior has changed 100% from last week. I am now a very quiet trainer, no more telegraphing with body movements and even eye contact. Will it last when I go back home and start working with my irresistible parrots who seem to command kisses and cuddles out of me every second of the day? That’s my challenge.

Tomorrow, evaluation day. We will have to demonstrate the behaviors of our chickens in front of the whole class. I feel like I am back in school!

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Today was a very good day at Chaining Chicken Camp. Both Wendy and I made a lot of progress with our two chickens walking on the apparatus. My two birds gained in fluency thanks to a high rate of reinforcements, and many, many repetitions. They now walk the whole length – up the ladder, around the pole on the first platform, on the bar, around the pole on the second platform, down the ladder – in one direct shot.

My own behavior has progressed tremendously from last week as well. I have learned to stay absolutely still, and what a difference this has made in my training. My chicken really, and I mean REALLY, looks at me and if I make a movement, even a tiny one, at a crucial turn on the apparatus I end up losing her and getting another behavior in the way, one I do not want. Amazing teachers these white ladies.

But the real hero of the day for me was Wendy. Her chickens yesterday were simply looking at the ladder and staying still – a true dead chicken behavior. We thought they were stuffed chickens. Today they were responding a little more, and by the end of the day Wendy got them to the point where they are both walking the whole apparatus! She is a BRILLIANT trainer with amazing intuition and the ability to always be one step ahead of the animal. And, she is a great coach for me, the best I could ever have, providing honest feedback and catching me being good. I am so proud
of her!

In Lecture, Bob talked about the critical importance of making written plans for our training sessions, with excruciating detail. He defines a behavior as a constellation of responses performed in sequence (no fixed
order) or chained (with fixed order). For example, the final behavior of the chicken walking on the apparatus consists of many responses: climbing the ladder, walking on the platform, walking on the bar, etc. In turn, each response can be seen as an ensemble of elements: a chicken walking on a horizontal bar must lift the foot, move the foot forward, shape the toes appropriately to walk on a narrow bar, touch the bar, shift the weight on the foot, etc. Our job is to break down the final behavior into its responses or even elements and plan how to teach each one.

The sun is setting on Borlange, ending another great day at Chicken Camp. We are ready for bed and tomorrow’s new endeavors. Sweet dreams!

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