Dog Training: Dogs + Chickens

I met Lisa Marshall from Estes Park, Colorado, during my big trip to New York City last month. Funny that we had to go across the country to meet. Anyway, she faces a challenge of being a dog-lover and a home chicken-raiser. She needs our help.

You see, Lisa wants to enjoy her mountain life (much like ours) with both her dogs and her chickens living  free on the old range, but the dogs need to learn NOT to harass the poultry.

best dog blog, champion of my heart

Obsessed with the chickens, Lisa's dogs try to break into the chicken yard and have nearly eaten a bird or two that flew the coop.

I’m curious to hear ideas from our dog-training community of peers:

  • Is this primarily an impulse control issue?
  • Could you teach NOT chasing / hurting the birds? If so, how without resorting to punishment-based methods?
  • Would tactics like LEAVE IT or LOOK AT THAT work?

Dogs + Chickens = Trouble (Sometimes)

A member of our loyal group recently suffered terrible chicken losses when loose area dogs murdered one chicken, then while Frugal Kiwi and her Frugal Man dealt with the body, the dogs came back, broke into the well-fortified chicken coop and killed another one.

You can read the whole, sad tale here:

Princess Layer is Dead

The Dogs Came Back for Hen Solo

Dog Traps and Possums

And, please don’t jump all over her for pointing out the breeds of these dogs. It isn’t that detail that makes the situation dangerous. It’s the total lack of supervision (including not preventing litter after litter being born) and marauding nature of the dogs that’s at issue. These same dogs have been causing all kinds of mayhem in her community, but so far officials haven’t been able to figure out who owns them or to catch them.

Personally, I’m amazed at the level of help Frugal Kiwi got from local animal control about the issue. I doubt we’d get similar help here, if an area dog (or pack of dogs) came on to our property and killed stock of any sort. (Not that we have any, but I mean in general.)

My Dogs + Chickens Ideas

I would suggest Lisa try these tactics, many of which come from the book Control Unleashed:

STAGE 1

Teach the dogs a good solid DOWN-STAY on a relaxation mat, if possible, well away from the chickens.

Once that’s solid, move the mat and the dogs outside where they can see the chickens.

Keep the dogs leashed and play the LOOK AT THAT GAME, rewarding the dogs for looking at the chickens calmly.

I often say to Lilly, “LOOK, Puppy” or “LOOK, person” when I want her to notice something without flipping out. And, we have done it with the chickens at the Clear Creek History Park, along a path we frequent.

Move the dogs closer to the chicken pen (over time) and repeat the process.

STAGE 2

The dogs will need a solid LEAVE IT cue, but Lisa could then practice letting the dogs walk around (on leash) while the chickens are loose in the yard.

She could use LEAVE IT if / when they show too much interest and use high-high-high value rewards for success. Must rank higher than moving, squawking chicken.

I would also practice recalls (COME!) around the chickens (first on leash, then on long lines, then off leash … over time) so that the dogs learn to come off the chickens when asked.

Post Your Ideas

This is all theoretical on my part. I’ve never had dogs and chickens together. We have tried these tactics with:

  • Chickens behind a fence
  • Ducks / geese we encounter on our walks

The real challenge is that it only takes one mistake, and you’ve got potentially fatal outcomes for the birds … AND an extremely self-rewarding activity for the dogs.

So, dear readers, dog-training friends … what would you recommend Lisa do to train her dogs in a way that allows both canine and bird friends to live free-range, peacefully?

6 thoughts on “Dog Training: Dogs + Chickens

  1. June 5, 2011 at 5:04 am

    I’ll side with JJ that you can’t count on 100% perfection when trying to work against a dog’s prey drive.

    Would Lisa be willing to consider a chicken “tractor” to give the birds safe scratching ground while working with the dogs?

    Having a movable, secure area for the chickens that still allows them to scratch for goodies in the earth might be a good start.

  2. Shirin
    June 4, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    I have a 5.5 pound well-behaved Papillon whom I am preparing for high-level obedience and agility competition. He is clicker trained, and As part of our foundation, we are doing CU, Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol, etc.

    Last weekend my youngest grandson got a pet cockatiel (whom he is clicker training). The bird was raised with dogs, so is used to them. My Papillon is always with me, so he was there when we brought the bird home. We will work with both bird and dog to ensure the dog is as reliable as possible around the bird.

    No matter what we do I can’t guarantee that my dog’s prey instincts will never be triggered around the bird. If they were, my grandson’s pet would most likely be gone, and it would change forever how we feel about the dog. Just not worth the risk, so my rule is and will remain, that if the bird is out the dog is crated or leashed, and if the dog is loose, the bird is securely in his cage behind a closed door.

  3. June 2, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    I want chickens so I have the same questions – how to let them roam without the dogs chasing them? Let chickens out when dogs aren’t out and put away when dogs are? Of course, I have a similar issue with how to keep my gardens safe from a digging maniac.

  4. JJ
    June 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Argh. I try to refrain from commenting as much as I can. (I always offend someone =[)

    But.

    Anyway; I felt it imperative that someone note this:

    Military and service dogs are trained to a 95% reliability – and those are the best of the best; the most reliable dogs out there.

    We… train our dogs well, but we usually don’t hit that reliability percentile.

    Regardless, let’s assume we do – that we put our heads together, come up with a great plan, and train those dogs to 95% leave-the-darn-chickens-alone reliability. (And I thought your ideas were stellar. Personally, I’d use prevention – drag line or something – in addition to training.)

    The question should then become…
    …is it worth the 5% chance?

    Throw in the Breland Effect (instincts overcome training) and I ask again….

    Is it worth the (substantially more than) 5% chance that a chicken could get hurt?

  5. June 2, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    Thanks Roxanne. As I mentioned in the comments of one post, I wasn’t making a big issue of the breed that happened to be killing my chicken, just reporting. If it had been chihuahuas, poodles or water spaniels, I’d have reported that as well. I don’t have any axes to grind, breed-wise.

    I really appreciate responsible dog owners who go the extra mile to make sure their dogs are well trained, well secured and well looked after. Here in New Zealand I often see AMAZINGLY well trained farm dogs and our farmers would have a hard time working their stock without them. Plus, they are some super sweet dogs!

  6. barrie
    June 2, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Nancy on the clicker solutions yahoo group detailed how she taught her extremely excitable dog of a breed which shall not be named 😉 to leave her free ranging chickens alone using no aversives. I doubt Nancy allows Vanya to free range on her property without her present though which is a slightly more difficult problem.