by Barbara O'Brien
I work for chicken feed. Or at least my chickens do. That is what I will tell you when you ask how I train chickens to perform. I have trained chickens to jog on a treadmill, push a button, climb stairs, appear to be swimming, enter and exit an elevator, talk into a microphone, jump onto a desk and shake their tail in someone’s face, and many more behaviors for television commercials and print advertisements.
Most people think that chickens are dumb and just run all over squawking and flapping their wings like…well, like dumb clucks. But I know better. Chickens are highly intelligent birds with tremendous survival skills that have allowed them to become one of our earliest domesticated animals.
Chickens are useful barnyard animals. They peck at manure, eat larva and bugs, and aerate the soil with their scratching. They give us beautiful eggs on an almost daily basis. A flock of chickens is an excellent alarm system.
Chickens are surprisingly trainable, too. When I am looking for a chicken to train for a commercial or an ad the first thing I do is find one that is bold and brave and will eat out of my hand. A chicken has to be food motivated or I will never be able to keep it on the set.
If I want the chicken to walk towards me I hold the food just out of reach and reward it when it takes even the smallest step towards me. This training technique is called shaping. I use shaping to train all kinds of animals to perform. If I want a chicken to go to a certain spot I bait the spot with feed and the chicken is rewarded for going to the right spot. Eventually, the feed is removed and the chicken will still go to the spot.
Omega Fields Animal Ambassador, Pretty Peggy, was remarkably easy to train
for her many appearances in Perkins Restaurant commercials. In one spot, she had to portray the downtrodden wife of a late rising rooster. We trained her to sit still on a therapist’s office chair and cluck and squawk on cue as if she was talking to the therapist. I trained her to do this by showing her food and rewarding her when she made noise but didn’t move position. Her appearances in Perkins commercials were very successful.
So, the next time you see chickens roaming and pecking in a barn yard, remember that they are a lot smarter than they look.