Cluck Click! Training Chickens Reveals Their Intelligence

Teaching a trick to a chicken increases beliefs that chickens are intelligent and can feel emotions.

Learning to clicker train a chicken reveals their intelligence and personalities, and influences attitudes to the idea of chickens experiencing emotion
Photo: Gillian Holliday/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Learning how to train chickens changes student’s attitudes towards them, according to a new study by Susan HazelLisel O’Dwyer (both University of Adelaide) and Terry Ryan (Legacy Canine). The chickens were trained to do a specific task (such as pecking on a red but not green circle) in order to get food. Survey responses before and after the class show more positive attitudes after the clicker-training session.

Lead author Susan Hazel told me in an email, “I believe that the main reason for the students’ change in attitudes to chickens was that they realized chickens are smarter than they thought (they learn the colour discrimination tasks very fast) and also when you work with the different chickens you see their personalities.” 

“Some chickens are fast and other chickens still learn quickly but just respond more slowly,” said Dr. Hazel. “It wasn’t so much of a surprise that students were more likely to believe that chickens were intelligent, are easy to teach tricks to, and that they have individual personalities. It was more surprising that this carried over to students more likely to believe chickens could experience boredom, happiness, and frustration.”

Some of the differences are quite striking. Before the class, only 7% of students thought it would be easy to teach tricks to a chicken, but after the class this went up to 61%. Beforehand, 49% thought chickens are intelligent, but afterwards 77% agreed. Most of the students thought chickens had individual personalities before the class (84%), but this went up to 95% after. There were some gender differences, including that women gave higher ratings than men for chicken intelligence. 

Each year the chickens are named according to a theme. This time it was members of the Royal family, and the brightest chicken was one called Margaret. Students had a clicker attached to the handle of a scoop containing chicken food. When the chicken got something right, the trainer pressed the clicker (making a sound to signal to the chicken they did the right thing) and then let the chicken eat from the scoop. 

The practical class lasted for 2 hours and included time training chickens and other activities. Chickens were chosen because they are easy to care for and handle in the class – and they are unforgiving of their trainer’s mistakes. The class used a technique called shaping which involves rewarding closer and closer approximations of a task to reach the final behaviour. Students worked in pairs to practice shaping on each other before training the chickens. 

The class was taught to small groups of students each week over an 8 week period. The specific task that chickens were taught varied over time depending on what they already knew; for example initially they were taught to peck a circle, and later to discriminate between a red and a green or yellow circle. Students had up to three sessions to teach their chicken what to do; each session was 5 sets of 45 seconds each.

94 students completed all of the before and after survey questions. The practical was part of a class in Principles in Animal Behaviour, Welfare and Ethics taken by students reading for a BSc in Animal Science or Veterinary Bioscience. It turned out to be an excellent way to teach them about force free training. 

Dr. Hazel told me, “The other stand-out has been how much students learn about training animals… Rather than saying ‘my chicken was stupid’ they now say ‘my reflexes were too slow’ and I think from chats with students in their second year that this translates to other animals they go on and train, like dogs.”

One of the neat things about this paper is that it does double-duty as both a research study of the effects of learning to train chickens on beliefs about them, and as a model of how to run such a practical class for students. The details of how the class was run are included in the paper, and are based on a chicken workshop run by Terry Ryan in South Australia in 2012. 

Students were taking a lecture course alongside the clicker training practical. It’s possible that students who took the practical later in the term were also influenced by their greater knowledge; however no such patterns were detected in the data.

This study shows learning to train an animal leads to more positive attitudes towards it. The change in views was also apparent from student comments. One said, “I never thought that chickens would be intelligent enough and learn quite so quickly.”

Some dog trainers attend chicken-training workshops to improve their skills. Have you ever trained a chicken?

If you liked this post, you might like my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog calls it “The must-have guide to improving your dog’s life.” 

If you're a cat person, you might like to check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Dr. Sarah Ellis says, "Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!"

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Hazel, S., O'Dwyer, L., & Ryan, T. (2015). “Chickens Are a Lot Smarter than I Originally Thought”: Changes in Student Attitudes to Chickens Following a Chicken Training Class Animals, 5 (3), 821-837 DOI: 10.3390/ani5030386

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