If you haven’t heard of PORTL yet where have you been? At Zoospensefull we discovered this awesome learning tool only about a year or so ago. Since we received our copy we have used their games in almost every workshop to get more engagement and learning from our participants.

We always look for different ways of thinking outside the box and this book has helped us drastically. We decided to get in contact with the writers and ask them some questions!

Tell us a bit about yourselves and, for those who don’t know, what is PORTL?

I have an undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in behavior analysis from the University of North Texas. I do some private dog training and horse training, and I also serve as president of The Art and Science of Animal Training. In addition, I teach classes at the University of North Texas as an adjunct instructor. 

PORTL is a table-top game that is played by two people, a “teacher” and a “learner.” The teacher uses a collection of small objects to teach a behavior to the learner. It’s a great tool for practicing and improving your shaping skills. In addition, you can use it to learn more about how behavior works. 

To see PORTL in action, I would encourage people to check out the “What is PORTL?” article on the Behavior Explorer website. It has more information about PORTL and some video examples. 

What is PORTL?

What inspired you to write this book?

The PORTL manual is a collaboration between Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and me. Jesús and I originally learned about table-top shaping games from Kay Laurence. I was still in graduate school at the time, and the other students and I started playing shaping games nonstop. 

As we played, we began to make changes to the game so that it could serve as a teaching tool for behavior analysts, and we also started developing a curriculum of exercises that could be used to illustrate behavior analytic concepts. 

In 2012, Jesús, several of my classmates, and I conducted our first shaping workshop at the annual convention for the Association for Behavior Analysis International. 

After this, Jesús and I started doing more workshops, and Jesús started using PORTL in his undergraduate classes. When I started teaching at the university in 2016, I also used PORTL in the classes that I taught. 

As our students played PORTL, we saw many “ah-ha” moments. The students showed great improvement in their teaching skills, as well as in their understanding of how behavior works. Jesús and I wanted to write this manual to make our curriculum of PORTL exercises accessible to people all over the world. 

Who is the book designed for?

The PORTL manual is for anyone who wants to learn more about how behavior works and who wants to improve their teaching skills.

The manual is a step-by-step curriculum with nearly 50 exercises. The exercises start simple, but gradually get more complex. In addition to several chapters that focus on shaping skills, the book also has chapters about differential reinforcement, chaining, stimulus control, schedules of reinforcement, and concepts. At end of the book, there are several chapters that explain how to use PORTL to design errorless training plans and how to use PORTL to conduct inquiry and research projects. 

Several universities now use PORTL to teach their students about shaping and about the basic principles of behavior analysis. PORTL is also used extensively as a teaching tool by animal trainers, special education teachers, and other professionals. 

What did you learn while writing the book?

We developed the exercises in the book over a period of about eight years. The exercises evolved and changed over time, as we saw what worked and what didn’t work. 

In the shaping section, we have a series of six foundational exercises. However, we didn’t start with these six lessons. Looking back now, it is really interesting for me to see how these particular exercises evolved. While I was teaching my undergraduate students, there were certain ideas that I found I was continually having to explain to my students as they tried to teach behaviors in PORTL. Then it would dawn on me. We needed an exercise that specifically taught a particular idea! 

This is an important lesson.  If the student is struggling, the instructor needs to change something. If the student has all of the necessary prerequisite skills, it should be really easy for the student to do the behavior you want. Developing the PORTL exercises helped me better understand some of the component skills that are necessary for people to learn how to be good shapers.

What is your favourite ‘activity/game’?

I really enjoy the six shaping foundational exercises. On the surface, they may all seem like fairly simple lessons, but they are powerful. For example, one of these lessons is called “transferring actions.” The basic idea is to make it easy for a person to learn an unlikely behavior. 

For example, if I gave you a toy dice, and I wanted you to push it across the table, this would be very hard to shape. You would probably pick up the dice and roll it or toss it in the air. You probably wouldn’t push it across the table. However, I could start with a car, teach the action of pushing, and then transfer the action to the dice. 

This concept of “transferring actions” can greatly improve our training. Animal trainers often start training with the objects, props, and equipment that are part of the final behavior. But, it’s often easier to teach the component actions with other items and then to transfer the actions to the final setting or objects. 

For example, an owner may have trouble teaching a dog to stick its head into a harness because the harness has a lot of pieces and it is difficult for the owner to hold the harness. Instead of starting with the harness, the owner can start with a loop of rope and teach the dog the action of sticking its head and neck through something. Separately, the owner can also use a stuffed dog to practice holding the harness and fastening the buckles. After these steps, it will be much easier for the owner to work with the dog and the actual harness because the owner and dog can fluently perform the actions that are needed.

Find out more HERE.

A practise round for the organisation of the 2019 Animal Training Workshop held in Hamilton Zoo, NZ together with Zoospensefull.

How often do you use the book and in what context?

I teach a graduate class at the University of North Texas that uses the PORTL manual. The students meet for two hours a week for PORTL activities and short lectures. By the end of the semester, the students are using PORTL to design errorless teaching programs to teach some pretty complex behaviors. It’s great fun to watch their skills improve during the semester. 

Jesús and I also give workshops throughout the United States and the world using PORTL. Currently, most of our 2020 workshops have been cancelled or postponed due to the corona virus. But, we plan to do more workshops later on.  

Find out here where they are next!

I also get together regularly with friends just to play PORTL for fun! 

Any tips for those people who use the book?

I would encourage people to spend time being both the teacher and the learner. You’ll learn just as much playing the role of the learner as you will playing the role of the teacher. 

In addition, a lot of people want to jump to the chapters in the back of the book and start teaching “complex” behaviors. However, I would urge people not to skip the early chapters. The exercises for practicing reinforcement delivery and the foundational shaping lessons are very important. If you have a good foundation, the harder stuff will be much easier and more fun. 

Do you have plans to do another book?

With the help of Jesús, I am currently working on developing more free resources for the Behavior Explorer website, including both articles and videos. However, Jesús and I hope to write more books together in the future!

Find out more:

Behavior Explorer is the home for PORTL and also has additional resources about human and animal behavior (https://behaviorexplorer.com). In addition, you can follow Mary’s training adventures on her personal blog, Stale Cheerios. ( http://stalecheerios.com)  

We at Zoospensefull want to thank Mary Hunter for her insights and of course for the great literature her and Jesús created. It has a huge impact on the life of our animals. Behavior Explorer is a great source to become better in behaviour modification. Make sure you visit their website and order their products!


Peter is a passionate Animal Consultant that beside teaching you about Operant Conditioning makes sure you will go home motivated and inspired. Make sure you read his Bio!


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