Month: July 2021

Dogs vs. Backyard Dinosaurs: Keeping pet chickens safe with dogs

This past week the rescue I work with was contacted by two different people to take in dogs who were attacking/harassing/killing chickens. We were able to help them thankfully, but in reflection I feel very sad for these two otherwise delightfully sweet dogs. They were simply doing what dogs do.

With the pandemic came a lot of changes for our world, one of which was the rise of backyard chickens. Or backyard dinosaurs as I like to call them. I have had chickens in my backyard for years, I absolutely adore them, and someday should film training them using the same methods I use on dogs and horses (ducks, and pigs too apparently!) And as delightful as backyard chickens can be, they do pose a challenge when it comes to our dogs.

Many owners are finding a sudden problem of their dogs wanting to mess with their chickens. Many of these dogs were not raised around chickens, and now are faced with the challenge of ignoring their instincts and not chasing the flightless birds hanging out on the lawn. And owners are facing the reality that their sweet, wonderful dogs might pose a threat to their equally wonderful chickens.

So what are we to do? How do we maintain the safety of our flocks in the presence of a predator? Except in this case the predator is Fido, our family golden retriever.

Can dogs and chickens coexist?

Absolutely! But there are some things we need to understand about dog behavior, and chicken behavior though. The first is that dogs are opportunistic predators. And chickens are prey. Not only that, chickens behave like prey: they tend to flap off, making noise and running when startled. Which can easily excite the prey drive in a dog, even in our softest, most mellow and fluffy of pups. This can also cause other problems if the dog catches the chickens, stress to the birds, injury or even death. And as such knowing what to do to help our dogs and chickens coexist is important to keeping everyone safe and happy. We have to acknowledge this reality, and understand that it is something that will always color our are dogs and chickens interact. This is not a problem for dogs, after all it is what dogs do, and we very rarely condemn dogs for chasing squirrels.



It is rare that you will find a dog who is more willing to leave the chickens alone than chase them. I am more surprised by dogs who ignore the chickens, then I am by dogs who are willing to do chickens harm. As mentioned above, dogs are predators and will behave the way predators do. So our first line of defense in protecting our chickens is management.

A secure chicken coop and run is paramount. Having a safe space with plenty of room to secure your chickens is not only good husbandry, it is the best way to keep your chickens safe from all kinds of threats. Hawks, raccoons, foxes will all cross through suburban environments for an easy drive thru meal of a pet chicken. Your chicken run should have some kind of roofing, either a solid roof or a wire roof that provides protection from above. But when you have a dog in the yard you should also reinforce the fencing around the run, and a way to keep the bottom of the run from being dug under. At my tiny urban homestead I have cinder blocks around the base of my run, and I have wrapped hog panels outside the chicken wire that makes the bulk of the fencing system. These hog panels are designed to keep very large pigs in place, and since they are very sturdy they are the perfect defense from dogs pushing on the chicken wire inside and weakening my fence. The cinder blocks are there to keep the dogs from digging at the fence and creating holes to stick heads through. At my house one of my dogs will absolutely cause the chickens harm if he gets too close to them, when they dogs are in the yard the chickens are secure in their run. I took special care in raising my hens to train them to “kennel up” on cue.

The second phase of management is the age old, tried and true best practice for keeping dogs safe: a leash. Yep! When in doubt: leash up. Leashes are an important part of managing the situation to keep your chickens safe, and your dog from making poor choices. Here at the River Hawk Homestead when a dog needs to go potty, but the birds are out in the backyard enjoying their bug patrol duties, I take the dog out on a long leash to go potty. This allows me to really reinforce their good behavior of ignoring and disengaging from the birds, as well as keep them from getting too close and making a poor choice with the birds.



The next step in dog and chicken cohabitation is that favorite word: training. We want to work with our dogs very quickly as the birds come home. I teach a strong, and well reinforced “leave it.” But I also train my dogs (on a long line) in the yard with the birds to do mat/stationing behaviors. Teaching them to maintain a comfortable position on a platform or a mat while the birds are about. Both of these behaviors will go a long way to helping your dog know what is expected of them when the chickens are around.

The final training piece is a rock solid recall. Being able to call my dog back to me and direct their focus to appropriate items is key to harmonious living with birds. I want to make sure I can ask my dog to walk away from the birds of their own accord, and easily give them an appropriate alternative to chasing my birds.

In conclusion: Yes dogs and chickens can live together. But that picture may not look like the bucolic image of a dogs sniffing in the yard with chickens milling about. For many dogs it will look like good management and ongoing training practices to keep the birds safe, and the dog's safe from their own less than desirable impulses. And if you find yourself overwhelmed; reach out! I have a lot of experience with chickens and with dogs (obviously) and I am happy to help guide you! You can even get a consult on how to train your chickens to recall and kennel up on cue! (My behavior consulting is not limited to canines!)

I want to normalize the idea of a half hour training session with a professional trainer.

Over the last year I’ve spent a lot of time adjusting my business, like we all have. One of the ways I did that was moving to an online platform for training, first by necessity, then by choice. I love working online. I love working over video. The ability to record, and watch without any interference from my presence has forced me to elevate my training. I have had to sit down and analyze the way I teach and learn all the subtle nuances of my own methods to translate them to other people without the handicap of grabbing the leash. And something I’ve realized is that a half an hour is the perfect training session.

I offer half hour training sessions online only. This is because the cost of driving around my valley makes a 30 minute session not really worth it given the cost of traveling in time and gas around the city. Except that maybe it is?

We talk a lot about the dog’s ability to focus in training. Keeping sessions short and in multitudes rather than one long session during the day. But what we don’t talk about is the owner. As people we too have limited attention spans, and brains that can become over saturated with information ensuring not enough gets retained.

So why are we still working on an hour long model when a half hour model is more efficient for everyone? I think on eof the primary reasons is tradition, growing up attending public schools class times are an hour long, meetings with therapists, lawyers, doctors are all charged by the hour. But the reality is those hour long classes aren’t actually an hour either. It’s 50 minutes. Your therapist? 50 minutes. Your doctor? Maybe a half an hour really. So why in dog training has the industry standard become an hour when a half hour will serve every one just fine?

As someone with ADHD I often worry my perspective on focus is skewed. I oscillate between so fixated on a goal I can remain on a single task for hours, and so wildly unable to concentrate I can’t even get the dishes done. So I tend to view my perspectives on the best use of time through a lens of inherent suspicion: am I accurate or am I just having an ADHD moment? But the truth is moving to offering 30 minute sessions online has been an amazing blessing.

In 30 minute sessions I am able to have my notes made, my plan of attack done a head of time, and I can hit the ground running. Everything is streamlined. I have the ability to present information and practice skills in doses that do not overwhelm the dog, or the owner. Because I keep my own active teaching to short bursts in traditional sessions, it’s easy to fall into the trap of information dump between working with the dog. For some clients this is something they can soak up, and they love it. But for people who are less interested in the nitty gritty science of dogs, and more interested in just having a good relationship with their dog, this can be an information overload. And this can make it hard for them to remember the key points they needed to take away from the session, or what specifically they were to work on.

And yes, after session notes are helpful for this, but for me after session notes can be very time consuming, and take a day or two to get out to clients when I am doing back to back hour long sessions. My brain has a saturation point too, even for an area of hyper focus like work. But in a 30 minute sessions I can have time set aside after for those after session notes. I can make them immediately, and get them typed up and sent out directly following my work because I have budgeted the time for it more smoothly then with a traditional time slot.

So going forward I am going to be sitting down and reworking my current plans and packages. I think making training sessions with clients into shorter, more frequent bursts, like in dog training it’s self, is going to see more success for everyone. And at the end of the day my job is to make sure my clients can train their dogs, and 30 minutes is all it takes to a better relationship with any dog.