The DOG dilemma
PUBLISHED: 10:41 17 August 2011
Can dogs and chickens co-exist? The answer is ‘maybe’
To train your dog effectively, you need to work out the ‘critical distance’; this is the distance between your dog and your chickens before the dog reacts and tries to chase them. Walk your dog on the lead slowly towards the birds, praising all the time. There will come a point, if it’s a chaser, when its interest will be raised and it won’t be able to contain itself and it will lunge or bark. Once you know that distance, you can start work. Whilst the dog acts calmly, you should be praising and rewarding. The minute the dog lunges or shows aggression, say ‘no’ firmly and use noise aversion. Each time you take the dog to see the chickens, you should try to reduce that critical distance - but don’t rush it. “Giving it time is the main thing,” says Stan. “Always go in with a dog on the lead, for at least six weeks, and wander round watching the dog’s body language; you can tell if it gets stimulated by the movement.” By doing it this way, you are gradually desensitising your dog to the chickens. You’re letting it know what behaviour you expect of it around the birds and it’s learning that acting calmly around them will please you. The next step, once you think the dog is ready, is to get somebody else to hold your dog on the lead whilst you pick up a chicken and pet it. If the dog reacts well, then allow it to come up and investigate the chicken you’re holding, but all the time make sure it’s on a tight lead. Constantly praise the dog if it’s calm. You don’t want to make it jealous, so make a fuss of the dog too. Do this several times until you feel confident the dog is reacting calmly.
Our Jack Russell loves chicks – but not in a way that’s good for the chicks! The internet is full of pleas for help: ‘How can I stop my dog chasing our chickens, or, worse still, simply killing them?’ The simple truth is that dogs are predators and chickens are prey, so can the two live together safely? The answer isn’t quite so simple - it’s a maybe.
Dog trainer Stan Rawlinson says that, first and foremost, it depends on the breed. “Gun dogs are trained to come off the bird and only retrieve when injured or dead, so generally these breeds are easier to work with in this situation. “You’re going to have a problem with dogs such as greyhounds, which are stimulated by movement, but the most difficult ones will be terriers, particularly Jack Russells, Patterdale and Fell terriers, which are bred for hunting rats and other types of vermin. Unfortunately, dogs don’t differentiate between vermin and chickens, so it’s much more difficult. “If your dog is a rabbit, pheasant or pigeon chaser, then you can have a fairly good expectation of what it is going to do with a chicken.”
It’s not all lost though. There are various methods you can use to try and train your dog to be chicken-friendly. The old-fashioned country solution, if a dog killed a chicken, was to hang it round its neck for several days. Speak to any dog trainer and they’re going to frown at this idea. “I can’t understand why anyone would think that could work,” says Stan. “It’s more likely that the dog was also given a beating. It’s neither an effective or humane form of training. The best way is to use a combination of aversion and desensitising training.
“The first thing you must do is to have your chickens in a secure area before bringing your dog out to see them”, says Stan. “Watch your dog’s reaction as it approaches. This is going to give you a good idea of what it would like to do. Make sure your dog is on a lead. Allow your dog to sniff around and investigate the chickens, but, if it lunges or starts barking, then a firm ‘no’ and noise aversion therapy should be used”. Noise aversion is when you make a sound that the dog dislikes. It learns to associate that noise with the behaviour and soon realises that, if it wants the noise to end, it needs to stop what it’s doing. Stan uses a ‘jingler’ which he’s designed to go on the dog’s lead, but anything that’s easy for you to carry and use will do.
In addition to noise aversion, you should also be praising the dog for its good behaviour. There’s no point constantly telling it off, if you’re not telling it when it’s behaving correctly. Praise can be given simply through your voice, or a friendly stroke, or you could offer a treat or the dog’s favourite toy.
The final step is to let the dog off the lead near the birds. Your voice is going to be important here. The dog reacts to you, so calm, reassuring praise is important, but always keep the lead with you and be ready to react quickly should the dog suddenly revert to canine predator. With patience, you should eventually find your dog completely ignores the birds, and canine and fowls can live happily ever after together … or can they?
There is a health warning with this relationship. “In some cases,” says Stan, “there are dogs which are so predatory and chase aggressive that it’s very, very difficult to stop them wanting to chase and kill. There are ways of doing it, but, in some cases, it’s almost impossible and, the second your back is turned, the dog goes game on, and bang!” Our Jack Russell Beanie is a perfect example of this Jekyll and Hyde character. Aversion therapy in her case was getting a peck on the nose from our cockerel Percy, which worked a treat. Since then, she’s given all the adult chickens a wide berth and wouldn’t attempt to chase them. (This, of course, won’t work so well with a larger dog which wouldn’t find a cockerel so daunting). The issue Beanie has is with chicks and young birds. She will dutifully walk through the room which contains the chicks, knowing full well that she will be told off if she diverts, but if we allowed her to be on her own where she can reach them, it would be all over for the chicks. Her natural instinct to chase and kill small, squeaky things is simply too strong and we could never trust her around them. You can’t blame your dog for this; the important thing is to be aware of it.
Knowing your dog is crucial, as it will help you work out how far you can re-train or push its natural instincts. Watch out for sly, sideways glances at the chickens and the second the ears go up and they get that desperate look in their eyes, you know that particular battle is lost. The good news is that, in most cases, patient training will pay off and your dog and chickens will happily co-exist.