Chicken Camp: What it is, Why I Went, and What I Learned!

In 2012 I went to Seattle and, while I was in beautiful State of Washington, I went to Chicken Camp. Since posting a few pictures on Facebook of me holding a chicken, I’ve been getting tons of questions. This blog will cover the answers to three main questions: What it is, Why I Went, and What I Learned!

1) What is Chicken Camp? As many of you know, I’m a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and work with children with autism using the science of behavior, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is based on operant conditioning which is a theory formulated by BF Skinner in the 1930s.

BF Skinner and his colleagues studied animals (mostly rats and pigeons) and discovered the basic principles of behavior; most importantly that positive reinforcement could increase behavior in all animals, including humans.

Beginning in the 1960s, Karen Pryor began using operant conditioning principles with animals and developed a technology called Clicker Training. With Clicker Training, a clicker, whistle, or bell is used to audibly mark a behavior as correct and is immediately followed with a reinforcer.

In the past decade, TAGteach (clicker training for humans) developed out of Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training, which is an excellent technology for teaching children a variety of skills as well as adults.

Terry Ryan, an Internationally recognized expert in the field of animal training runs chicken camps. Chicken camps are 2 or 4 days long and are held either at Legacy Canine Training Center in Sequim, Washington or on site around the world when Terry is brought in to speak to small groups of about 20. Terry doesn’t travel with chickens though so for the training opportunities outside of Washington, the hosts need to work with local 4-H Clubs or farmers to supply the chickens.

Terry has worked and continues to work closely with Karen Pryor and is also TAGteach certified. The first two-day chicken camp is basic in nature with lecture, videos, and hands-on activities with chickens; incidentally the chickens are raised on the premises. Many people attend chicken camp to get better at training their dogs but, increasingly, managers and human trainers have been attending to sharpen their people-training skills. Our 2-day chicken camp was an advanced training since all twenty of us (who worked in pairs) were BCBAs (or had advanced ABA knowledge) so our camp was tailored to meet our unique needs.

2) Why did I go to chicken camp? Like chickens, many of the children I work with including my 15- year-old son with autism, do not understand complex human language. Since becoming certified as a Level 1 TAGteacher in 2010 and after reading “Reaching the Animal Mind” by Karen Pryor around the same time, I have become convinced that the key for me to become a better Behavior Analyst was to learn more about animal training.

I don’t own any pets, so in an effort to get some animal training under my belt, I was directed to look into Terry Ryan’s chicken camp. I found out that Terry’s organization was located in Washington State just 2 hours from Seattle. Because so many Behavior Analysts were scheduled to go the ABAI conference in Seattle in May 2012, I inquired with Terry about setting up an advanced ABAI 2-day chicken camp immediately prior to ABAI.

While Terry has previously conducted private chicken camps for groups such as the FBI and for managers from a Fishing Boat Company, she had never hosted camp for a room full of eager Behavior Analysts. I didn’t know if the idea would be appealing to other BCBAs but was happy to sell out the workshop 2 months prior to the end of May.

3) What did I learn? My chicken camp experience was excellent! While I was initially nervous to handle the chickens, I soon learned the skills needed and felt successful in every way. Here are a few specific things I learned or were reinforced during the 2-day camp:

When teaching people, it is important not to jam too much information in every minute. During chicken camp we took a 10-minute break every 50 minutes. When we took our first 2 breaks (50 minutes after we got started and then another one hour later), I was thinking that these constant breaks were excessive. By the afternoon of the first day though I became to appreciate the frequent breaks, which led to excellent networking, a relaxed training environment, and happy “campers.”

Reinforce early, not late. This is especially important for new/difficult behaviors. When we were first teaching our chicken to peck the red chip, for example, we were instructed by Terry to click as soon as her beak was going toward/almost touching the chip. I applied this in the past week when I was working with a 3-year-old client. We were having a difficult time “pairing up” the intensive teaching table so as soon as he started to approach/walk toward the table, I directed the therapist to turn on the iPad video. In the past, I might have waited until he was sitting to reinforce and we wouldn’t have been as successful.

In this video,  you will find a 3-minute video with some highlights of our chicken camp experience.

Don’t assume you know what the extraneous variables are to which the chicken or child may be responding. Since returning from chicken camp, I feel that I am much more aware how difficult it is to evoke target behaviors and reinforce immediately since we work in uncontrolled settings with multiple variables operating at all times.

If you suddenly are not getting target behavior, the animal may need to rest, may be full, or may need to lay an egg. As a nurse and a behavior analyst, I am keenly aware that most of the kids we work with sometimes have physiological issues in addition to autism, which can be a factor.

Short sessions are best to keep everyone on his or her toes. In addition to the humans taking breaks every hour, we also were careful not to overwork the chickens. With the chickens, we targeted a behavior for 30-60 seconds at a time, then picked up our chicken and re-grouped. We only repeated the short intervals for about 10 minutes then the chickens were put back in their cages for a drink and a rest. The chickens were not the only ones who needed a break every 30-60 seconds, since the instructors needed time to analyze what went right/wrong and to plan for the next interval.

Don’t over-prompt by physically trying to move the chicken or by “luring” or “baiting” the chicken to do the task. For instance, to get the chicken to go around a cone, don’t put the food out so the chicken just moves for the food. Instead, reinforce head or leg movements in the right direction with a click (indicating the behavior was correct) followed by a food treat. In general, children with autism are physically prompted and “lured” too often. Since camp, I’m more aware that reinforcing successful approximations is a much better way to go!

If the chicken is making repeated errors, the skill is too high and/or the reinforcement is too low. If the chicken/child is stuck on a program, he or she doesn’t have the prerequisite skills or you haven’t figured out how to teach the skills he/she needs. If you are not getting the target behavior, increase the reinforcement, reduce the field size, give a better prompt, or somehow look to make the task easier. Once the chicken/child is successful, you can ramp up from there. The idea that the chicken/student/child/trainee is never wrong was heavily reinforced during our 2-day chicken camp. If they don’t “get it” you are not “teaching/training” them correctly

If you are interested learning more about behavior analysis and directly improving your own shaping skills with animals, please email Terry at [email protected] or check out her web site: for more info about chicken camp. To learn more about using ABA to teach children with autism, read my book The Verbal Behavior Approach.