Cover Photo: Libby Eyre

We all know that using food reinforcers are highly effective in training our animals. We try to find their “favourite” food sources and heavily use this in our training sessions. All to increase the behaviour we would like to see. When we put this into perspective the primary reinforcers would work at any time! I mean it is a reinforcer which means the behaviour you are looking for should increase. But did you know if we stay with the exact same reinforcer continuously you satiate the reinforcer you are using? This means that you over use the reinforcer and the power slowly disappears. 

Imagine continuously eating the same food without any variation. Eventually you become bored out of your mind eating the same food. You have satiated the food you chose. This is exactly what’s happening when you get to comfortable with choosing the favourite food as reinforcers and become complacent about it. 

Cooperative Care without food

There are situations where food is not an option. Within the medical spectrum there is a variety of reasons why food can’t be used as a reinforcer previous or after a behaviour you asked the animal to preform. When would that be you might ask, well whenever blood samples are taken for hormonal checks vets prefer the animal not to eat. Gastric samples, radiographies and ultrasounds in specific areas, gastroscopies (see video), application of specific medications or vitamins are all specific reasons to not use food as a reinforcer. 

Voluntary gastroscopy conducted with a Californian a sea lion. If you look closely you see that the stomach is empty. Trainer: Enzo Rodriguez

10 laws of shaping

Karen Pryor wrote in her book “Dont Shoot the Dog” a fantastic piece about changing the reinforcer before you move on. This was mention in one of the 10 laws of shaping. If you think about it, it’s actually very important. In the cases of medical care or cooperative care it is important to go through this process. Which makes an interesting discussion because we think when a behaviour is in stimulus control it is finished while actually it is not. There are many important components that are forgotten if we train our animals with only focussing on food.

So why do we still use the reinforcer that seem to what we think work best? From the experience I have coaching many different trainers around the world it comes back to knowledge. The easiest reinforcer is obviously food which inherently is reinforcing to the animal. If you of course do not try to feed a giraffe a herring, because this is not going to work. Food is the easiest form of reinforcement and it can be very powerful. Many trainers therefore will not step away from this because it self reinforcing to the trainer to see quick progress in teaching their animals new behaviours. I remember working with dolphins where we always said the food is gold. Plan and time it well. The reason was that it’s a powerful reinforcer which 9 out of 10 times will work very effectively. But there is more…

As mentioned before in this article you can satiate specific food reinforcers. So why dont we use different reinforcers? Experience has shown me that moving to more creative reinforcers is difficult for trainers. To go outside your comfort zone and hoping the reinforcer works is a gamble which many do not want to take. 

Different reinforcement options

If we take the gamble bit away we can make it a journey where we are sure different reinforcers will work. First thing we need to do is open up to these different techniques we can use. One of these techniques is conditioned reinforcers. This one of the strategies I will quickly apply coaching trainers. I want the trainer to have fun but the animal as well. Having a static trainer that feeds the animal might be a very boring appearance for the animal. What I’m looking for as a coach is that the animal has as much fun as us if not more. Applying a variety of reinforcers helps to achieve this special goal perfectly. 

Perfume as reinforcers used with the Kaka at Hamilton Zoo, New Zealand

Conditioned reinforcers is one way of adding different reinforcers to your training program. How it works is nothing more than adding a reinforcer after the action. An example is im touching an animal and reinforce with an important reinforcer right away which can be food. You might directly think about the marker. Well you are right the marker is actually the most common conditioned reinforcer we know. But there are more options for you believe it or not. 

Advanced strategies to reinforce your animal

As written in this previous article we wrote about the premack principle it is safe to say that this can be used as a great reinforcer as well. Premack principle means reinforcing a low probability behaviour with a high probability behaviour. An animal is actually continuously telling us what it wants which allows us to use that as reinforcer as well to other behaviours. 

Another great way of planning such a strategy is with behaviours who you just finished and now im talking especially about high energy behaviours. The reinforcement history of such behaviours allows this behaviour to be used as a reinforcer to other behaviours. Some behaviours the animals like to do more than others.

Lisa Longo from the Animal Academie using other behaviours as reinforcer.

There is one more strategy which is applicable but I have to say it is a very grey area. Through building a very positive energetic atmosphere we are able to bring the animal with us in that state. It is like the mirror idea. Where the animal reflects of the atmosphere. If you have low energy the animal might have this to and vice versa. Using unpredictable actions makes a training session very playful which on its own is reinforcing already.

Can you train without food reinforcers? Yes of course. It takes a lot of training skill, observation and timed placement for us to do so. Practise makes perfect and when you apply all of this together a new world opens up for you and the animal. 

If you want to learn more about this specific topic and find out how you can become better in reinforcement strategies for your animals, check out this pre-recorded webinar.

Categories: Trainer Talk


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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