At one table, John Uncle of London and Allan Bauman of Wooster, Ohio, coaxed an Old English game chicken over two raised sticks and onto Bauman’s hand.
Nearby, Helen Waldes of Topeka, Kan., concentrated on getting a white English leghorn to peck a doll’s eye that could later be attached to a switch for recorded music.
Sacramento’s Joan Guertin had her banty rooster, one of the brighter birds of the group, jumping through a hoop.
By week’s end, she hoped to have him jumping up on her shoulder.
Welcome to the Legacy Canine Behavior and Training Camp, a week of lectures, training sessions and yes, chicken tricks, all aimed at doing a better job of teaching Fido to sit, stay, heel and play dead.
Dog trainers paid as much as $405 each for the camp and came from across the United States and five other countries, in large part for the kinder, gentler training methods advocated by Pullman’s Terry Ryan.
The goal is to use only positive reinforcement, encouraging an animal with praise or food instead of coercion.
Chickens just plain don’t respond to force, so they are an ideal model for learning to train dogs.
“If you can train a chicken, you can train just about anything,” said Ingrid Shallenberger, a camp instructor. She ought to know. Before recently moving to Omak, she was the head dolphin trainer at Sea Life Park in Hawaii for 25 years.
The weeklong camp, which ended Saturday, involved 92 participants, 30 of them with dogs, and 60 chickens. Divided into three groups, the campers attended seminars in the main fairgrounds building, more specific lectures on exercises like retrieving in the food booth, and the chicken work in the poultry building.
The birds notwithstanding, the atmosphere reeked of dog. There was the not-so-faint smell of fur, whines and barks at lunchtime, and a camp store offering wolf-hybrid books, training guides and trinkets like the Snappy Trainer. Featuring a large plastic paddle attached to a mousetrap, the device startles a dog with a fast but safe snap and deters it from places like the living room couch or the kitchen garbage pail.
Hopping from room to room and building to building was Ryan, a wry woman whose 25-plus years of experience ranges from classes held in Pullman, Colfax and Moscow to seminars on four other continents.
“She’s like a good-will ambassador for dog training around the world,” said Val Ellingson, a Spokane trainer whose golden retriever, Jack, starred in the Spokane Children’s Theatre production of “Annie.”
“We’re just lucky she lives an hour and a half from us so we get her a lot.”
In Japan, where there is a greater focus on guard dogs and a militaristic training technique, Ryan helped create a growing interest in dog-friendly techniques, said Keiko Yimazaki, who interpreted for the large contingent of Japanese campers.
“It’s a field that Terry’s really started in Japan,” she said.
Ryan herself said there is a clear trend toward the more gentle techniques, but with some reluctance in certain quarters of the training world.
“People are in a rut,” she said, “and they think the old methods work. But if they really evaluated it, they’d learn the old methods aren’t working that well.”
Essentially, the dog-friendly method breaks down an exercise into its most basic elements, rewarding the animal for doing each element, then piecing the parts together.
With a chicken, that can mean rewarding it with food when it looks down, then when it looks at a bell, then when it pecks the bell.
With a dog, it can mean rewarding it for grabbing a dish towel, for grabbing the towel when it’s tied to a refrigerator door, for pulling the door open, then for grabbing a ball, then a can, then a can sideways, then a can on the inside of the refrigerator door. With the proper commands and rewards, a dog can be fetching its owner a beer, even closing the refrigerator door afterwards.
It may take longer, but the method is a benign shift away from harsher techniques, said Waldes, the Kansas trainer.
“We’re from a society in which, if we can whop it with a stick, that’s OK,” she said as her hen alternately pecked at the doll’s eye and a cup of food in Waldes’ hand. “But what happens is it increases stress. The dog may do it, but it’s not part of a partnership.”
Joan Guertin, the Sacramento trainer, said the method is underscored by “a philosophy of gentleness and kindness that hopefully will have an impact on other humans.
“Basically,” she added, “it’s a concept that goes way beyond dog training.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Training tips for dogs, owners Here are a few dog-training pointers culled from the school of Terry Ryan: Precede every command with the dog’s name. Be consistent. Keep training sessions short. A few minutes a few times a day will help avoid boredom. Look for chances to do “opportunity” training. Just as a dog sits on its own, say “sit” and reward the dog. Other opportunities can include lying down, even answering nature’s call. Immediately reward appropriate behavior, don’t reward inappropriate behavior. Don’t let your dog jump up on you as a form of greeting. Get down to his or her level instead. To stop the habit, firmly say “no” and “off” and gently push the dog off. Offer praise for greeting behavior that does not involve jumping. If a dog nips and bites while playing, say “ouch” and leave the room to say you don’t want to play anymore. Encourage gnawing on specific, safe toys. Learn what praise and attention makes your dog feel happy and loved. Do it often. People need to be trained as much as dogs in proper handling techniques. Dog obedience classes and training guides go a long way.