When we (I) announced our intentions to add chickens to the Farmhouse menagerie, we were met with some very grave concerns. These concerns came in the form of questioning along the lines of the following:
“Won’t the dogs eat them?”
“How will you keep your dogs from eating them?”
“Dogs eat chickens, don’t they?”
and, also, “Don’t you think you have enough animals?”
To the last question, the obvious answer was a resounding ‘NO!‘, but to the rest, I responded with a feeble ‘yes?’ (the question mark, of course, inflects the end of that word upwards with shaky uncertainty). The truth is: I was completely nervous about it. Our little suburban lot does not have a lot of yard, and it would be an enormous pain in the tail feathers to keep the dogs and birds separate. The yard must be shared. They would have to play nice.
But how? How, indeed.
The only inter-species assimilation experience I had to fall back upon was cats and dogs. Our previous home was a 700 sq ft shoebox, in which we managed to seamlessly, incident-lessly integrate two cats together with the dogs. With such tight quarters, it was sink or swim.
I am no dog whisperer, but it was immediately obvious that these dogs had to see the cats and the chicks as part of the ‘pack’, which is exactly opposite of their natural inclination to see the smaller animals as prey. So how do you re-wire?
When we first brought home the baby chicks, they were kept in a brooder on our kitchen table. Which is totally normal and not insane, at all, thank you very much. Though they were up off the floor, they were still roughly at sniff-level for the dogs, which is good because the dogs were able to get used to the smells and sounds of the chickens. The flip side of this is that the chickens were still in danger from the dogs–those dogs could still knock that brooder off the table, if they really, really wanted to. How do you prevent this from happening? The answer is the key to the success of the entire operation: constant supervision. At no time, EVER, especially in the beginning, do you ever, ever, ever let your dogs be around the chickens (or cats, or whatever) unsupervised. Whenever we had to leave, the dogs were locked up, or the chicken brooder was put behind closed doors. If I had to step out into the yard for even a minute, those dogs came with me and were not left to their own devices with the brooder. I understand, too, that I have a leg up because I work from home and am there to supervise all day long–but whatever you do with your animals when you are away at work, be sure that they are securely separate. Never trust them alone.
The most nerve-racking part of the whole process is the supervised visitations. But this is where it is seriously important to remain very, very calm. Dogs feed off of your energy, and if you are a basket-case, your dog will be a basket-case with a poultry craving. For the first couple of dog/chick meetings, it was also imperative for me and the Texan to be present: I would securely hold a baby chick, and the Texan would securely hold a dog–albeit, comfortably, on the couch. We would pet and coo and love both animals, and let the dog sniff the chick and reward the dog with praise for polite behavior. Any sudden movements, tense body language, or acts of aggression were met with restraint, and immediate cease and desist of visiting rights. It is important during these moments to really know your dog’s body language, and to not underestimate it. You want the dog to be near the bird only when it is calm and submissive (thank you Cesar Millan!), and you want to reward the dog with positivity when it acts like this around the chick. I’m not going to lie….it is a long road. You have to be committed to the idea of dog/chicken harmony and put in the time. Believe me, it is worth it.
We probably lucked out with our dogs. Chance has always been very tolerant of other animals (except squirrels). You just have to show him once, and only once, that this little ball of fur or feathers is a pet (shown simply by me holding and petting the new animals and letting him sniff, wag his tail in approval, and go on his merry way). Abbie was a little tougher. Abbie was very anxious and tense when the little babies arrived in their kitchen-table brooder. The first couple of visitations did not go well (she strained against the Texan’s hold on her, and her body language was that of a very hungry dog). More than once in those days, I thought that she could never be trusted, and I would never let her be around the chickens. She had adapted nicely to the cats, but she was much younger then, and perhaps cats were better suited to dog-friendships than chickens were. It was very discouraging.
But I dug in my heels and kept at it. I had read that it was better for free-range chickens to have guard dogs in the yard with them, that this helped keep other predators away from the yard. Because we live close to the foothills, we have a lot of coyotes, racoons, and raptors around here. Not to mention plenty of neighborhood cats on the prowl. I really wanted my chickens to have body guards.
Slowly….every so s-l-o-w-l-y, Abbie began to relax around the chicks. When her body language dictated it was safe, we started letting the babies out for free-range kitchen sessions. We’d start by letting the birds loose and holding on to the dog. When she had proven herself worthy, we would put her in her ‘down’ position and tell her to stay (which she is very reliable with), and let them free-range around her (keeping a close eye). Slowly, but surely, we’d let her get up and wander around with them, and ultimately, she got the picture. Still, I never thought I would let her be outside, unsupervised with the birds. But she proved me wrong. After many weeks of dedication to the cause, she became and still is the best chicken-shepherd I could have asked for. She wanders the yard with them, happily sniffing and coexisting as though it is the most natural thing in the world. And Chance? Never even batted an eyelid at the chicks, and is content to lay in the sun on the driveway while they take dirt baths in the planters a foot away from him.
So what happens if the chickens pre-date the dog? It just so happens that we ran into this scenario, as well. My brother’s french bulldog, Milo, comes to stay with us quite frequently, and that dog wanted to eat those chickens with such a passion that, again, I thought it hopeless. But, Milo is proof that you can teach a frog new tricks.
When Milo first came to visit post-chickens, I had to only let him outside when the chickens were locked in the back garden. He would go back and sniff them through the fence, and if he got aggressive (ie, barking or growling at them), I would correct him. Soon enough, he got used to them being back there, and we began the supervised visitations. For him, this meant a short leash while he and I sat and watched the chickens free-ranging in the yard. Again, any aggressive behavior was corrected, and if it persisted, the visitation was ended. Sweet behavior was rewarded with praise. Slowly but surely, the length of the leash was increased and then eventually, the leash was discontinued. He was allowed to be free with the birds only when one of us was outside to supervise. Once or twice I caught him gleefully chasing a chicken, but was close enough to put an immediate stop to it. These days, he is trusted to be outside with the birds alone. While the chickens tolerate his presence, it is interesting to note that they do not let him come close to them like they do Abbie and Chance. They give him a wide berth. I attribute this to the simple fact that the chickens grew up with Abbie and Chance. It seems to me that when one or both types of animal starts as a baby, they do better with each other for the long haul. But that’s just my opinion.
I must say that it is a beautiful thing to look out into the yard and against all odds, see free-ranging dogs and chickens. But I also take my success in this department with a large grain of salt; you just never know what’s going to happen tomorrow, and the reality is that you should just really never let your guard down. I am, by no means, a professional animal trainer, and I, by no means, think that my methods are fool-proof, or even worthy of duplication….I just wanted to share how it was that our odd-couple group of animals came to be.