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Basic Chicken Etiquette and Training for the Family Dog

Backyard chickens and the family dog can co-exist in harmony, it just takes some patience and training.

Backyard chickens and the family dog can co-exist in harmony, it just takes some patience and training. The presence of a pet dog will go far towards deterring predators from venturing too close to your flock, but unless properly trained, your pet dog can become your flock's greatest threat.

Sadly, dogs are the #1 killer of backyard chickens. And it's not always a stray dog or a neighbor's dog. Often it's the family pet. 

The dog can't be held responsible if it hasn't been trained not to mess with your backyard flock. It's really important to set boundaries, teach your dog basic commands and be sure your dog knows the rules. Otherwise, things can easily end in tragedy.

I hear too many stories of families who never let the chickens out when the dog was in the backyard or vice versa, but then inevitably, someone leaves the back door open, or doesn't realize the chickens are out.... things happen, so the safest option is to be sure that your dog will behave around your chickens.

We've had two German Shepherds and a corgi since we've been raising chickens, and none of our dogs have so much as pulled out a feather from any of our chickens.

Basic Chicken Etiquette and Training for the Family Dog 

When we got our first chickens several years ago, we had an aging (10 year old) German Shepherd named Sadie. It never even dawned on us to worry about Sadie around the new chickens because she was naturally so intelligent and well-behaved, she seemed to instinctively know what was expected of her.  

Our German Shepherd Sadie with the Chickens

We were right to trust our judgment because Sadie immediately took to the hens, and they to her. They all lived in peace in our backyard.  Sadie never so much as ruffled a single feather on a single hen's head.

And in fact Sadie instinctively saved one of our Rhode Island Reds from a hawk attack one day while we were all outside enjoying a sunny summer afternoon. 

She tore down the pasture, reaching the poor chicken well before we could have gotten there, thereby startling the hawk and scaring it off before it could do much more than grab a few tail feathers.

Sadly, we lost Sadie to a stroke just after she turned 12. And just as heartbreaking, we suffered our first (and last) predator attack on our flock. Sadie did more to protect our chickens and ducks than any of us realized. Her mere presence and scent I'm sure kept the predators at bay while she lived with us.

Knowing that we could never begin to replace her, we went for some time without even entertaining the thought of getting a new puppy, but we soon realized that every farm (and family) needs a dog.

Our German Shepherd Bella with the Chickens

And so we welcomed a new German Shepherd puppy, baby Bella, into our hearts and home in February of 2011. Adorable as she was, right from the start we realized that integrating her with our flock was going to be a bit of a challenge.

Unfortunately Bella didn't seem to have been blessed with the same maternal instincts as Sadie. Instead of snuggling up with and nuzzling her stuffed toys like Sadie, Bella ripped off their heads and fished the squeakers out of them after chewing off their eyes. 

Things were not looking good on the chicken front - or the cat front for that matter! 

Poor Linus! Although he started out bigger than Bella, she soon outgrew him and terrorized him every second she could.

Fortunately, Linus could run faster, squeeze into small spaces and climb higher than Bella could! But we started to wonder if this little whirlwind of barking, biting, jumping energy would ever be able to co-exist with our flock of chickens ....

Training for the Family Dog

But I firmly believe that dogs want to please you, they want to behave. They just need to learn the rules. They need boundaries set for them. 

Dogs are smart - especially German Shepherds - and I was pretty confident that we could teach Bella some basic chicken etiquette and train her not to bother the chickens.  

She just needed to understand that they were to be protected. After all, that's what shepherds were bred to do, right?

And a well-trained dog can be invaluable in helping to keep your chickens safe when they're out free ranging.

Basic Training for the Family Dog 

So we embarked on a dog training mission to be sure that Bella and the chickens could live in harmony.

Erring on the side of caution, at first Bella was never allowed outside off the leash.  She, predictably, would lunge for the chickens and when we closed the paddock gate to keep her confined while we did chores, she would race the length of the run fencing - much to the chickens' consternation.

I began to wonder if our poor chickens would ever lay eggs again with all the new stress they were under. But it was important to get Bella desensitized to them and they to her. I needed to know that if she ever got out by accident while the chickens were out, everything would be okay.

So time went by, of course, and Bella started to grow up and respond to her training.  The chickens got used to her being around and resumed their normal routines and started to ignore her.  Egg laying went back to normal.

She learned the basic commands: 

  • No
  • Sit
  • Stay
  • Down
  • Come
  • Not Yours
  • And the all-important Leave it/Drop it (just in case...)

In time Bella seemed to even lose interest in the chickens and ducks since we spent so much time down at the barn. But we still always kept the fence in between her and our flock. 

Finally we started to feel comfortable that she was ready to be outside off-leash when the chickens were free ranging.  At first, we used an electric collar set on the vibrate setting.

Feeling like nothing more than a pager going off (my husband and I both tried zapping each other before we ever put it on her!), it didn't hurt her at all and it gave us the opportunity to see how she would react to not being tethered to the leash, but also kept us in control.  

The vibration definitely got her attention and returned her focus to us and off the chickens.  

Meanwhile, I had hatched some chicks in the house and we used the opportunity to let Bella "meet" them, placing them on her paws and back, even on her head. We would "visit" the brooder each day so she got used to the chicks and how they looked, smelled, sounded and moved.

We let them walk around outside while she watched. Bella quickly learned that they were part of our family. She also had the opportunity to watch some baby chicks with their mother hen as well while everyone was outside. She was fast learning to respect the chickens.

More time went by and Bella began to grow out of her "puppy crazies".  The crazies had turned into curiosity more than anything. A healthy dose of curiosity about the small living things that shared the farm with us.

To Bella's credit, other than a few half-hearted attempts to chase a hen or two, she has behaved admirably among them, tempting as I'm sure it has to be for her, especially when they race around the pasture, flapping and squawking and carrying on.

Basic Chicken Etiquette

But the rules were that Bella was  NEVER allowed to chase or even touch the chickens. Not even in play. No batting them with her paws, no gumming them (as dogs are prone to try with soft, squishy, squeaking objects), and God forbid no trying to rip off their heads or chew out their eyes!  

We needed to set clear rules for her and I've seen too many times when people allow their dogs to rough house with their chickens or ducks and that's just never going to end well. We needed boundaries set and then enforced.  

So Bella keeps her distance - largely due to once getting a bit too close to our broody Buff Orpington, Grace. Being a typical grouchy broody, went at Bella in full kung fu chicken mode.  Bella immediately turned tail and ran to escape the screeching, kicking, flapping hen! Lesson learned.

Being a shepherd, Bella does like to try and herd the chickens into a circle, but they largely ignore her and continue to go about their business scratching for bugs.  So she finally gave up and has to be content just watching them from afar. 

Bella is not allowed in the chicken coop or run - ever. They need to know that their space is theirs. She is good about that rule and does adhere to it.  She pushes the boundaries, but she stays out of their space.

We have made the rules clear to her and she's smart enough to respect and understand them.

Nothing is more heartbreaking than hearing about a reader's flock being killed by their own family pet dog.  

Despite best intentions of never allowing the dog unsupervised access to the chickens or keeping a fence in between them, invariably a door gets left ajar, a family member lets the dog out not realizing the hens are out, a chicken escapes from the run, or the dog digs under the fencing.

It's always best to train your dog so you can rest easy knowing that even without a fence in between, no farm will befall your flock.

No worries on our farm. We feel confident knowing that Bella has been trained to respect the hens, that they are part of our family -and meant to be protected, not harmed.

We also know that Bella's presence and scent in and around the barn and around the run perimeter is a huge deterrent to predators, despite her not being technically trained as a LGD (livestock guardian dog), so having her outside while we free range the chickens - and being able to trust her with them - is such a huge plus.

Patience, repetition, training and lots of treats (along with the occasional wiggle from the vibrating collar!) go a long way towards successfully integrating your dog into your flock. But trust me, it's worth it in the long run for all involved.  Despite any early misgivings, Bella has evolved into quite the farm dog!

And eventually Bella and Linus even became best of friends.

Update | We added Winston the corgi to our family several years later. He was a rescue we got from the local shelter when he was about three years old.  

We can assume that he had never seen a chicken before coming to live with us, but by using some of the same tactics, we successfully introduced him to the chickens as well (in fact, he was even easier and from the start was really good with them right off the bat). 

I firmly believe that almost any dog can be trained to use proper etiquette around the chickens for the benefit of both with a little bit of consistent training and setting guidelines and boundaries.

Edited/Updated: We have worked with professional dog trainers both in Virginia and Maine and used the methods recommended by them in training our dogs both around the chickens as well as with other behaviors. A well-trained dog is worth its weight in gold. We specifically recommend No X-Cuses K9 here in Bangor Maine and also in South Carolina. Not a sponsored post, we just really had such a good experience with them.

Different trainers use different methods, but we put our faith in what we were taught and the results we saw. In over 12 years, none of our dogs have ever harmed a single chicken, duck or goose on our farm. I do recommend professional training, we found it invaluable for our highly intelligent German Shepherds as well as our headstrong but equally smart corgi. In the absence of expert training, I hope this article gave you some ideas for helping your family pet and backyard flock live in harmony. 

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