Clicker Training Farm Animals (with Video)

Reader Contribution by Fala Burnette and Wolf Branch Homestead
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Photo By Fala Burnette, Wolf Branch Homestead

Most of the jobs I have held in my young adult life were centered around the animal care field. Working at animal shelters, you see a variety of behavioral issues that not only cause animals to be surrendered, but also to be returned after previously being adopted. Shortly after being introduced to clicker training by another worker, who was passionate about improving the chances of adoptability in the animals, I implemented it into the handling of my work as well.

Clicker training involves the marking and rewarding of a positive behavior response in an animal- you are helping them note the moment they did something right, and rewarding them for it. It begins by associating the sound of the clicker with a reward, in most cases the reward being food. While the sound is usually made by a handheld clicker that makes a loud sound when you push down on the button, some people choose to mark the action with a verbal cue such as a cluck, or simply saying a word such as “good”.

The click must be immediately followed by the reward for effectiveness, so that they associate the sound with the reward. Once you have repeated this step, you then move on to marking the desired type of behavior with a click-reward. For instance, in teaching a dog to sit, you click and treat immediately when the desired behavior is performed. During this process, you also associate the word or hand signal with the action by giving it to the animal to ask them for that response. The process requires repetition and patience, but is an effective training method that is non-violent.

From a young age, I was interested in studying the body language and behavior of the animals at my Grandmother’s farm, in order to better understand how I handled them. When I was researching clicker training for shelter animals, however, I was guilty at the time of thinking it could not work for livestock and poultry. I eventually discovered the work of the late Dr. Sophia Yin, who promoted low stress handling in animals, and noted that she had videos and articles about clicker training for horses and even chickens! It served as inspiration for further studying how a positive reward system could benefit livestock/poultry and their handlers.

I wanted to start off with the young hen we had at the time, who had been hand raised, but who was not always easy to catch. I began by withholding her normal bowl of feed, and instead I gave it to her throughout the day by associating it with the clicker. After a period of repetition with this, we moved on to various things such as “heel” in order for her to follow directly beside you, and “up” to put herself into her coop without fuss. I also began to use a hand signal to ask her to fly onto my arm, whether it be from the ground or a perch. Combining these three commands, the issue of chasing her around was eliminated.

Years down the line, we now have Khaki Campbell ducks who have been clicker trained as well. Before they were even feathering, the pair of them knew how to ring a service (desk) bell. While this was more of a training session for fun as they grew up, it led to teaching them to put themselves back into their run when they heard a bell ring. This became another instance where clicker training has saved us from having to herd them around, as they know now that they will receive a positive reward for coming to us when they are called.

It’s not only poultry that can be trained in this way, as it can be applied to many other aspects of livestock handling. I have seen a growing number of horse trainers implement clickers into their work, teaching even an untouched Mustang that human contact isn’t so bad! It can even be used to encourage a goat to learn to walk with a collar and leash. In the future, we have plans to use this method on training cattle (even though there is some debate on the effectiveness of it with working oxen) for various projects.

I recommend that anyone interested in using clicker training in their livestock and poultry handling first understand the basics of positive behavior/reward based training, and how to properly use the clicker (or verbal cue) followed by a treat. Have a good understanding of the body language of your animal, and also know what sort of treats or food will catch their attention. Young people should always have an adult present when handling their animals, and all of us should use sense and safety when training (again, being able to read an animal’s body language fits in to safety).

Consider using these methods for effective training of your animals, whether it be for practicality or for fun. We’ve mentioned in the past that socializing your livestock can make the difference in everyday handling, and can even make the difference when selling animals. Can you picture the difference in a horse who is willing to lift his feet without a fuss, or a goat who is willing to walk to the milk stand calmly on her lead? Think about the enjoyment you could have with youngsters as you teach a backyard hen to run a miniature obstacle course! I encourage you to think of the ways that clicker training can benefit your homestead, not just for your dogs and cats, but for all the livestock and poultry too!

Fala Burnette is a homesteader with her husband at Wolf Branch Homestead in Alabama. They are currently building their own log cabin and milling their own lumber, along with raising heirloom crops in the Spring and tanning furs during the Winter. Read all of Fala’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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