How to Train a Dog to Protect Backyard Chickens
Training Puppies and Dogs With Chickens
This is my backyard chicken guardian dog, Badger. He lives mostly outside, watching for wild animals and strange humans. Any unusual sound is the signal for him to leap up, scattering chickens everywhere, and vanish silently into the woods. He moves so gracefully that he seems to float.
Chicken keeping can be a nerve-wracking hobby. A dog can be either the most dangerous predator, or the best protection, that your chickens will have. With proper training your puppy can become a reliable chicken guardian.
It's not common for a dog to bond with chickens as they may with goats or sheep. Birds can't take being licked and played with the way larger animals can. And that kind of play is way too tempting for the dog! But both dogs and chickens are territorial, and you can teach a dog to ignore the chickens while guarding their common territory.
I trained Badger to be safe with the chickens. He goes peacefully with me into the pen and hangs around while I work. If he spots an animal outside, he races to the gate and waits until I let him out to chase down the intruder. It took a lot of work to get him to this point, but having such a well-trained, useful dog is really worth it!
You can read about how I did it here, with videos by dog trainers explaining some of the basic methods.
Teaching Your Dog Not to Kill the Chickens
These are some of the basic steps I used to train Badger, and that many experienced chicken-keepers recommend. Keep reading for the details!
- Teach basic skills like sit, stay, off, and heel while away from the chickens. Practice them daily in many different situations.
- Bring your dog on-leash while you do chores. When you need your hands free, tie him where he can't reach the chickens. Reward and praise him when he's calm.
- After he's become a little accustomed to the chickens, begin to practice his basic skills on-leash when near them. Especially practice "off" and "take it".
- Watch for signs that he is paying less attention to the chickens - relaxed body and ears, yawning, wanting to wander off.
- After several weeks of less excitability, begin to do supervised practice off-leash. If he backslides, go back to on-leash work for a while. (Leave a long leash attached and trailing, so you can catch it if he charges the birds.)
- Train him to go voluntarily into a kennel or pen, so that you can confine him as needed.
- Practice with the chickens in all sorts of circumstances: day and night, in the pen and out, with adults and chicks, eggs in the nestbox or on the floor. Just because a dog understands one circumstance doesn't mean he will another, so you need to practice variations.
- Gradually let him off-leash for longer periods while you work close by or otherwise keep an eye on him. Watch for any signs that he's excited by the chickens, and redirect his attention to you.
Choosing a Puppy to Raise With Chickens
This is Badger as a baby. His mother is a working livestock guardian, a Great Pyrenees, and his father is a working herd dog, a Catahoula. We could see that Badger and his littermates all had the slow, stolid temperament of their mother, so we chose him to train with chickens.
Almost any breed of dog can be trained to tolerate chickens (although if you're going to try a Husky, you should have lots of experience and plenty of spare birds!) Some breeds are easier than others, especially when they're young, and that's a consideration if you don't have much experience. As Badger was my very first puppy, I wanted a dog who would incline to calmness and an easy temperament.
But choosing a calm breed doesn't mean it's all smooth sailing. Dr. Dunbar says that the majority of a dog's behavior is determined by its training, and since I was learning too, and often didn't know exactly what I wanted, we had to go back and learn a lot of things over together. (And as I'll tell in my next article, we had a disastrous setback that nearly ruined everything.)
And there is also the dog's natural development. He'll turn in a few months from a loving puppy to a hyper, knotheaded adolescent, and stay that way for what seems like a century. This is a time to keep repeating the basics, watch him closely, and don't let him loose with the birds yet.
Between one and two years old, if you've persisted in daily training and practice, you'll see him mellowing, his intelligence blossoming, and you'll reap the rewards for your patience. A well-trained dog is a joy and a delight!
(Note that even though Badger was a livestock guardian dog, he didn't know anything about chickens. If you want an "instant guardian", you should get a dog from a working line, that was raised with livestock [including chickens] and trained by older working dogs. Even though the puppy is a guardian breed, he'll need to be trained either by humans or dogs.)
Teaching "Off" and "Take It!"
A demonstration of the all-important "off" and "take it!" commands. This is basic for teaching bite inhibition, which is necessary for the dog to get along with humans and chickens.
This would be a scary picture if Badger were looking at that hen. His body is rigid, his ears are up, and he's staring fixedly - but not at the chicken. He's watching a dog treat on the ground in front of her, waiting for permission to "take it!"
When I told him to take it, he took it from the ground right in front of the hen, swallowed it, and trotted briskly off with me. He never looked at the bird.
We began to practice "Off" and "Take it!" when Badger was very young. (Note: With a large breed puppy, long sleeves and leather gloves are a big help until he gets the idea!) As he learned what "Off" meant, I gradually varied the game, sometimes putting the treat on the floor, sometimes on his paw, sometimes saying other things before "Take it!" All this made him learn to watch me closely and listen to what I was saying.
When he was very consistent with the command, we began to practice it with the chickens, for many months on-leash. If he stuck his nose in the nest box, or up a chicken's butt, I would tell him "Off", then as he backed off, "Sit!" When he sat and looked at me, he got a treat with the permission to "Take it!"
Tone is important, as he doesn't understand language. "Off" is said in a deep gruff tone, and "Take it!" with a cheerful, rising inflection. I rarely say "Off" in ordinary circumstances these days - Badger knows when he has to wait for permission.
How to teach sit, stand, and down using the very easiest method--lure and reward.
This is Badger waiting for me to open the gate for him. He knows from long practice that he has to sit to have a door opened, then he has to wait for permission to go through. I can tell him to "stay" as I go through the gate, and call him after me. Or I can tell him to "go on" ahead of me through the gate, driving the chickens back so they don't get out.
Believe me, this wasn't learned overnight! First we had to learn the basic commands: sit, stay, come. Later we progressed to more advanced ones, like "go back" and "go on". We practiced these every day, and still do, every time I open a door or go down stairs. Since Badger doesn't understand that he could knock me down by rushing through, I have to stay consistent and not let him backslide. If he does rush past me, I call him back, tell him to sit, and wait a moment before telling him to go on. This keeps him practicing good habits.
"Sit" is about the most important lesson your dog can learn. It isn't enough to tell a dog "No!" or "Stop". You need to tell him what you want him to do. And sitting is always safe and appropriate.
Right after I took the picture from the previous section, of Badger and the hen, I put the camera away and came to recapture my escapee. I got her cornered and grabbed her while she shrieked and flapped. Badger rushed up, ears erect, looking at her with interest. I commanded "Sit!" and he sat. I dropped the hen in the pen and we walked back to the house.
One command... but it's a life-saver.
Teaching "Home Base"
Your dog should have a secure place he can go when he needs to be separated from the chickens, or if you need to keep him away from strangers or any dangerous situation. If he'll be kept up for long periods, it should be a large kennel or pen. But the principal of learning to go inside voluntarily is the same.
Using "Home Base" for Training
Any dog should have a place he'll go to voluntarily, where he can be confined from danger or temptation. Medical treatment, elderly visitors, and chickens loose during his training are all reasons that he needs to go to a kennel or pen and wait calmly while you lock the door.
Badger hated the kennel when he was a baby. He was raised surrounded by puppies and goats, and had never been alone a minute in his life. He actually dug a den under our front steps and lived there when he was small, to be close to us.
Meanwhile, I was training him to consider the kennel his Home Base. His food and water were inside, along with a nice doghouse full of straw. It was sheltered and comfortable. I kept all his toys in there, throwing them back after he'd played with them. And the kennel was the only place he got treats.
Every day we practiced "Go to your pen!" I would throw a treat down inside and direct him to "take it!" We would play with toys and I would sit down and read outside. As he got older, I would break up treats and throw the pieces around the straw for him to hunt for. The kennel was great, a puppy playland, everything good was in there.
Then I started shutting the door. At first I would only leave Badger in for a few minutes, letting him out when he stopped fussing. (It's important to open the door when he's being quiet, so as to reward him for the behavior you want.) Gradually he stayed in for longer times. It was an everyday routine - "Go to your pen!" and he would zoom inside and sit down happily, to see what I would give him. Then I locked the gate and left him for a few hours, while the chickens took a walk.
I think this was an important part of his training, too - locking him up every afternoon while the chickens pecked around him. For a long time, as a puppy and adolescent, he would stare and fuss. But eventually he would just curl up and sleep until it was time to come out.
Home Base proved to be life-saving training, after the Great Chicken Coop Disaster turned Badger temporarily into a chicken-killer... I'll link to that story when I've finished writing it!
© 2013 Valerie Proctor Davis