Training Dogs Around Poultry
By Ashley Haffey – You see the silky feathers slinking in the shadows just outside the pen. Your guts plunge to the bottom of your stomach because you know the chickens are out, and your dog is too. By the time you scream “No!” there’s a squawk and scuffle and he’s shaking a hen violently at the neck. Anger fills your bones and sadness tears at your heart; another hen has met her untimely death with your untrained dog. But is there a way to prevent this? There is, according to The Dog Expert, Carolyn Georgariou (www.thedogXpert.com).
All Farms Should Have a Dog
Georgariou firmly believes that all farms should have a dog. “I cannot image a more valuable asset on a farm than a dog. Dogs can perform multiple tasks: protection, watching over the flock, keeping foxes out of the henhouse, and herding livestock. They will do all these things and they will do it for love.” But she continues, “To have a dog on a working farm and not teach the dog is insane.” You need to teach your dog to carry out these tasks because a dog doesn’t know how to behave unless a human teaches them correct behavior. “We need to teach the dog what we want them to do in any one given situation because a dog isn’t going to know what to do unless they are taught.” She gives an example, “Not even a farmer will know how to farm unless they are taught to do so.”
A Basic Language
Dogs don’t know English, so you need to teach them a basic language in order to communicate. This begins long before the chickens arrive. Georgariou explains, “All dogs should have a vocabulary. You cannot communicate what you want to a dog if you have no common language.” In other words, your dog needs to know basic obedience commands, which is known as operant conditioning. At the very least your dog should know sit, stand, down, stay, come, and heel. “The more you want your dog to work for you the more you have to teach him.” If that sounds like a lot of work, don’t fret. Georgariou says that the average command takes only 60 seconds to teach.
So what happens after you teach a new command? Well, that’s just the start – not the end. Now you need to repeat and practice the command on a daily basis. For example, Georgariou likes to teach the sit-stand commands together. Once the dog learns each command she begins what she calls “rapid fire training.” She asks the dog to switch between sit and stand as quickly as possible. If your dog can do 30 “sits” per minute, then after working for only two minutes a day your dog has sat 350 times after one week of training. Georgariou emphasizes that training sessions should be short, no more than 15 minutes, and often (three times a day). “You want to practice with an animal enough so that when they hear a command they no longer think about if they are going to respond to the command, they just do it out of habit.”
Proofing Your Dog
A lot of owners run into obedience trouble when they transition from inside to outside. After your dog learns the basic commands you need to begin what Georgariou calls “proofing.” You need to take your dog outside and practice the commands in a less sterile environment. “This creates focus in a dog because you keep challenging him.” She continues, “If you laid the groundwork in rapid-fire training then the commands are so ingrained that it is very easy for the dog to respond in more difficult situations. By training and practicing with him, we actually require his brain to work and become good at focusing. It’s like any other muscle, you have to use it.” Once your dog can carry out these commands in a distracting environment it is time to work with the chickens.
How to “Leave it”
Although your dog should know all the basic commands, “Leave it” will be particularly important if you want your dog to behave around chickens. It’s also really simple to teach. Georgariou begins the training inside with small pieces of meat or cheese for both temptation and reward. She puts the dog in a down position and places a piece of meat in front of the dog and verbally tells him to “Leave it.” If the dog tries to go for the meat she blocks it with her hand and verbally corrects “ahh.” When the dog loses interest in the tempting meat she rewards with a small piece of meat from her other hand. Then she moves the tempting meat closer and repeats the process. In the very last step, she places the meat on top of the dog’s paw. When he leaves it, she treats and rewards. Once your dog understands this command you need to apply it to the chickens. If he gets too close, tell him to “Leave it.”
For the Chicken Connoisseur
If your dog regularly eats chicken dinner then you have a lot of work ahead of you. After your dog knows the basic commands you should familiarize him to chicken scent. “Take a moist cloth and rub down the chickens. Then put this cloth in your dog’s bed and let him sleep with it. Dogs are very sensitive to smell so if you get him accustomed to the smell of chickens he won’t be so hypersensitive.”
The next step is to walk your dog in a controlled situation around the chickens. If he goes for the chickens, you tell him to “Leave it.” Since this is a controlled situation, you will have both mental and physical control if he tries to go for the birds. She emphasizes, “You need to literally educate your dog to what you want because for a dog to eat a chicken is a very natural thing. You need to get to the point where your dog knows that he is not allowed to touch the chickens because you are the boss and that is what you say.”
Once your dog is comfortable walking amongst the chickens you can take the exercise a step further. “It would be easier to give him a task related to the chickens than tell him not to bother the chickens at all.” For example, you could put your dog on a “down-stay” while you go into the coop to change the water. If he is still rushing at the chickens then you can put him on a long leash and practice a “sit-stay.” If the dog breaks from the stay and rushes towards the chickens then you verbally command and block with your body. You need to show the dog that you own the chickens, not him. “Spatial relationships and owning things are very important to a dog.”
If you can’t fully trust your dog around the chickens then Georgariou recommends a muzzle. “A muzzle is a tool just like a collar or a leash. This works really well if your dog is actively going after the chickens to hurt them and you want to protect both the dog and the chickens. That way, you can train without anyone getting hurt.”
However, Georgariou does not condone the use of shock collars. “If you use a shock collar, I guarantee you will not get the best out of your dog because it isn’t practical to hurt a creature and expect them to learn from it. The only thing that pain will teach a dog is to lose trust, respect, and to be afraid. If you don’t have a trusting relationship with your dog then you might as well not have a dog because you will just turn him into an enemy.” She continues to explain the difference between punishment and discipline, “You never want to punish a dog. Punishment gives us pleasure from frustration and anger we feel because the dog is not doing what we want. Discipline is a positive tool to elicit a good response –which is to educate. Discipline will teach dogs.”
Throughout her training Georgariou always emphasizes positive reinforcement via food and praise. She also recommends short, frequent training sessions that are accompanied by daily exercise for your dog. Using a common language teaches your dog what to do in a given situation. With a little effort, you can teach your dog to behave around chickens.
Choosing a Farm Dog
Georgariou offers some advice if you have the option to pick a future farm dog:
1. The dog must be fixed, especially the males. She says, “It is not only healthy but helps them focus with training and minimizes aggression. We want to shift the mentality from chasing the chickens to protecting the chickens.”
2. Pick a dog that is not a prey-driven dog. “Some dogs are more prey driven than others. If your dog is prey driven, then you are going to have a tough road ahead of you because you are asking the dog to go against his nature.”
3. Choose a dog that isn’t highly dominant. “The more dominant, the more handling you will have to do simply because dominant dogs are very bright and natural leaders and we want them to be followers.”
Originally published in the August/September 2011 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine and regularly vetted for accuracy.