equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

ASAT Conference 2017: Barbara Heidenreich on “Maintaining Behavior the Natural Way.”


Barbara Heidenreich is a professional animal trainer who does extensive consulting with zoos and also works with individuals training many different species.  In her work as a consultant, she often finds herself in situations where she has cannot rely solely on food for reinforcement, so she has learned to identify and use non-food reinforcers of many different kinds.

In her presentation, she shared some tips on finding and using non-food reinforcers.  This was a great follow-up to the discussions on using The Premack Principle because she had a lot of good examples of behaviors that could be used for reinforcement.  The examples included a lot of videos, which I cannot include here, but if you go to her website (www.goodbirdinc.com), or look her up on YouTube, she has lots of videos available.

Why food might not be the best option

She started with a discussion about why food might not be the reinforcer she chooses to use.  In some cases, it has more to do with the rules of the facility at which she is consulting, but there are lots of other reasons why food might not be an option, or might not be the best option.

Here’s her list:

  • The animal has no motivation for food
  • The diet is limited for health reasons
  • The diet was fed out already or needed for other purposes
  • She has no authorization to use food
  • The animal is fasting (snakes, alligators, etc.)
  • The same reinforcer can become predictable and less effective (she didn’t expand much on this but some trainers do believe that reinforcement variety is important)

While some of these limitations are less common with horses, I have found myself in situations where I could not use food for dietary reasons, because it was not allowed at the facility, or because the horse would not be able to eat during the training (this is usually only the case with dental or some medical procedures). I’ve also found that, in some situations, food may not be the best reinforcer.  So, having other options is always a good idea.

What do you do if you can’t use food?

If you feel it’s very important to be able to use food, you may need to address the issue directly by getting permission, coming back at a better time, or locating an appropriate food. But, in many cases, the better option is to try using non-food reinforcers. These can  be just as, or even more, effective than food reinforcers when used correctly.

She had some examples of natural behaviors that could be used as reinforcers.  One example was a beaver who could be reinforced with permission to take browse back to her cage.  Another example was a bird that could be reinforced with a colored object that he could take back to his nest.

Identifying possible non-food reinforcers

The challenge for most people is that if they are not used to thinking about non-food reinforcers, then it’s hard to know where to start.  But it all starts by observing your animal.  What does it engage in? What does it seek to acquire? What are species specific trends? Is there social behavior that is reinforcing?

She stated that “ANYTHING an animal seeks to acquire/engage in/have access to/do and can be delivered contingently has the potential to reinforce behavior.”

Here are some types of non-reinforcers that she has used:

  • Scent stimulation (smelling bedding from another animal can function as a reinforcer
  • Tactile stimulation – decide where, when, how  (pigs love to be scratched)
  • Visual stimulation (penguins can be reinforced by chance to chase lasers.  She worked with a gorilla that was reinforced by the chance to look at the ultrasound screen.)
  • Auditory stimulation (people do this inadvertently all the time by responding to behavior with laughter or by verbal responses, also mating calls, conspecifics)
  • Social interactions (in parrots, reinforcers can be facial expressions, mimicry, head bobbing, chuffing, etc.)
  • Enrichment items (toys, boxes, blankets, etc.)
  • Mental stimulation (a chance to solve a problem can be reinforcing)
  • Physical activities (running, flying, destroying, dust bathing, etc.)
  • Access to preferred people, preferred animals, preferred locations (darkness, sunlight, water for bathing or washing food,

There are many subsets within each category and some reinforcers will fall into multiple categories.

Evaluating reinforcers (food and non-food)

Even though many behaviors can be reinforcing, you can’t assume that all of them can be used as reinforcement for other behaviors. Therefore, it’s a good idea to spend some time observing the animal so you become familiar with his body language and responses to different kinds of stimuli. An easy way to start this is by looking more closely at how he responds to food reinforcers.  Learning how he responds to food reinforcers will help you learn to read his body language when you offer opportunities to engage in behaviors as reinforcement.

You can use some of this information to help evaluate non-food reinforcers once you know how they respond to food they like. It can help to compare a few different types of reinforcers to get a larger picture of the possible ways an animal can respond.

Evaluating food reinforcers:

When the animal is relaxed and comfortable and asked to do nothing:

  • Show the animal a food item and observe body language, does the animal look at, lean toward, orient toward the food? Anticipatory behaviors?
  • Offer a small item: how does the animal take it?
  • Observe how it eats the food: speed, using species specific behaviors?
  • What does it do when it’s done? Does it look for another piece? Engage in other activities?
  • Throughout: look for signs (species specific) that indicate the level of satiation

Evaluating non-food reinforcers:

The animal needs to be calm, relaxed, and in a distraction free environment before being offered the opportunity to engage in the activity.

  • Identify criteria for measuring motivation – are there behavioral signs that show the animal finds the activity reinforcing?
  • Are there ways to measure responses to the criteria?  How do you know when the animal wants more or is approaching satiation?

I think it’s a great idea to evaluate reinforcers before starting to use them. It’s so easy to jump into training with a reinforcer that you assume the animal will like, and then find that things don’t quite work out as planned.

The challenges of using non-food reinforcers

There are some differences between using food and non-food reinforcers, so if you are going to use a non-food reinforcer, you will want to think carefully about when and how it will be the most effective.

You also should consider if you need to spend time teaching the animal how it gets access to the reinforcer, how long it should expect to have the reinforcer, and how the reinforcement ends. Just as we teach our animals what to expect with food reinforcers, we need to teach them how we are going to use non-food reinforcers so they have clear expectations and we can use them effectively.

While the examples below touch on the need to have a clear understanding (on both sides) of how and when you are going to use the reinforcer, I wanted to emphasize it because I think it’s important to realize that you can’t just start using non-food reinforcers in place of food reinforcers without some preparation. This is especially true if your animal is used to food reinforcers and has some expectation about how behaviors will be reinforced.

Here are some of the challenges with non-food reinforcers:

  • You might have to wait longer between repetitions (doing a behavior can take more time than eating).
  • The animal might need to “give up” an item, so you need to plan for that (do you teach it to release it or set up the environment so the behavior naturally ends?). You might need to teach a drop, trade or retrieve behavior so the animal gives up what it has in order to do another repetition of the behavior.
  • If novelty is part of the reinforcement value, then you have to keep coming up with novel stimuli, which can be difficult.
  • Some non-food reinforcers are best used either before or after food reinforcers, and not mixed in with them. For example: if you try to mix food and non-food reinforcers with pigs, it won’t work because food is their #1 choice.  So use food before or in separate sessions. With other animals, it might be better to use food reinforcers after non-food reinforcers.
  • Some non-food reinforcers can build high levels of arousal which can flip to aggressive behavior.
  • Some non-food reinforcers can trigger unwanted behaviors (sexual).
  • Some non-food reinforcers require a lot of trainer participation.
  • If using a tactile reinforcer, you may need to train a signal that tells the animal you are going to touch. This prepares the animal and also makes it more easy to tell if the animal wants it. Wiggle fingers -> head scratch, repeat a few times, then delay and see if the animal will come forward to get it. If desired, you can add distance so the animal has to move toward the handler to get the reinforcer.

Video examples:

  • A bird was reinforced for putting a ring in a cup by getting to shred paper as reinforcement.
  • A tiger was shown shifting to new cage for an enrichment item. The item was placed in the new location ahead of time (pre-baiting).
  • An orangutan was reinforced by the opportunity to play with a box if she sat in a particular spot on a log.
  • Other apes were reinforced with a chance to look in a mirror and to play with a blanket.
  • there were more, but I’ve forgotten all of them…

Benefits of Thinking Outside of the Treat Pouch 

  • Great when there is no motivation for food
  • Some reinforcers facilitate calm body language (tactile in pigs and tapirs) which can help with cooperation for medical care
  • Animals may not satiate on some types of reinforcers very quickly
  • Some may be even higher value than food under the right conditions
  • More opportunities for animals to communicate what they want
  • Adding variety of reinforcers can facilitate keeping motivation strong when in maintenance mode for a behavior or a repertoire of behaviors (you can extend your training session because you have more reinforcer options)
  • Creates an attentive, insightful, well-rounded trainer

She ended with a few other video clips.  One was of her rabbit doing an agility course. At the end, the rabbit returned to her crate and could choose her reinforcer. If she faced forward, she got a head scratch.  If she faced to the back, she was reinforced with food.

She also had a clip of a program she is developing where you can go for a walk with a hornbill.  The bird accompanies the hikers and this behavior is reinforced in a variety of ways, both by the hikers and with natural reinforcers it finds along the way

Final thoughts

All the information Barbara presented clearly showed the value of using non-food reinforcers. Since I work mostly with horses, I find it’s easy to end up using food for most reinforcement, but there have been times when non-food reinforcers were good options.  Still, I suspect I haven’t used them as much as I could.

I sometimes think it must be easier to see how to use them when you work with a variety of species and are exposed to lots of different types of behavior.  The differences help to broaden your thinking about how animals engage with their environment and what might be reinforcing. At the same time, when you see similar behaviors functioning as reinforcers for several species, it might make you wonder about whether or not those behaviors might be reinforcing for even more species.

I found Barbara’s presentation had a lot of great ideas for evaluating both food and non-food reinforcers and it has prompted me to look more carefully at how my horses respond to reinforcement.  Do I see signs of enjoyment?  Do I recognize when the horse wants more? When he has had enough?  When he would prefer a different reinforcer or to end the session? Her presentation was a good reminder that good trainers are constantly monitoring and adjusting reinforcers and that both food and non-food reinforcers can be used effectively.

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