A closer look at food reinforcers

I have a friend who is a wonderful trainer. More recently she noticed that her animal had begun to change in response to the available reinforcers. Because the animal knew that sometimes there were other more tasty treats available, and being a smart and clever animal, she began to hold out for the higher value reinforcers. In other words she was negotiating a “pay raise.” My response to her question was in the form of stories taken from my own experience and what I had learned from others.

1. Not long ago I took McKee out of his normal paddock and began to train in a different area. He has seen this area, but it is distracting at times. Still, we’ve had enough history I felt I could do this at liberty (the area is not fenced in, but I’ve no road traffic to speak of, but I still don’t want him to trot off in search of the next fun adventure).

After a couple of minutes of training be just walked away from me. I was stunned. This horse never walks away from training.

I had to really think about the situation, and it dawned on me quickly that I had changed pelleted feeds. McKee accepted the feed, but he didn’t really like it as much as his other pellets, it was not strong enough to motivate him. These were just ordinary hay pellets, but he preferred the taste of the other brand of ordinary hay pellets. When I switched back to his other pellets he turned on the training button again.

These were just grass hay pellets, not carrots or whatever, but it was a significant change for him.

Moral: Be careful about changing the reinforcers. The “expectation” is a significant feature in the history of a reinforcer.

2. I heard a great story from Ken while I was at the Shedd. The sea otters had to be fed a variety of fish in their diet. They preferred one type of fish to the exclusion of the others. So they would basically reject the lessor fish in hopes (or in protest) of the higher value fish. So when they trained the otters, they had to condition the lesser value fish by pairing it with the higher value. So eating three pieces ordinary fish meant they could had one piece of the favored stuff.

Talk about a tough sell, however they did become trainable with the new protocol. They would work for the lower value knowing that the higher value would be forthcoming, but it did take some training to get to that point.

Moral: you CAN condition an animal to take lower value reinforcers and it takes skill.


3. I work with a VERY clever little horse owned by a friend and client. The mini is an Einstein, the older full sized gelding she owns is a saint.

The mini will do ANYTHING for a bite of grass. Further more, he will take his owner sand skiing to get to whatever looks remotely green. We’ve worked really, really hard to show him he didn’t need to fight us over the grass, and that if he’d just lift his head an 1/8 of an inch good things would happen. That 1/8 inch of offered head up was expanded to include a few minutes of continuous behavior before we stopped to let him graze on the grass he was working so hard to get.

It took months but now he will graze, easily lift his head to the cue, work until he hears the click and then he can get his yummy stuff.

When I first started training him on grass what would I use is carrot bites. This was the only thing that would compete with the grass. I would also return his head right to the grass if he would lift it at all.

Oh, and this little horse is the type that would sort through the pellets I offered him to get to the tiny morsel of carrot. He would even spit out the pellets that would normally work for him at dinner time.

Eventually when he realized he COULD get the higher value reinforcer, through his behavior, he began to accept whatever I offered him, which worked until I released him to the grass.

By the way, this SAME little horse is nuts about sweet feed. He gets a little bit when he loads into the trailer. He will TROT past the available grass to go load in the trailer. The history of the trailer experience and the value of getting this sweet feed trumps all other reinforcers and distractions. (I’m sure you’ve seen the video)

Moral: The history of the behavior, the expectation of the type of reinforcer comes into play at all levels. This is one of the art forms of training in my book. Finding out what motivates when, at what time of day, in what circumstances.


4. When I first started clicker training (this was back in the late 90’s and I only had full sized horses) I used a high value reinforcer, mostly carrots. I learned that it was better to start with as low a value reinforcer as you could. It took a bit of time to work backwards, adding more pellets and decreasing the carrots in my pouch. I mixed them together and made the carrot pieces really, really small.

When I got the minis I fell off the wagon and used a higher value reinforcer, and then had to go through the same weaning process. Now I recommend that people use the lowest value reinforcer that the horse likes. This usually ends up as a hay pellet.

Sometimes I mix a little bit of a different pellet in the pouch, but mostly I try to be consistent and make the WORK fun. On occasion, when I have an event that lasts all day, I will bring some higher value reinforcers. That’s mostly because I know at some point they will get satiated with the pellets. If I were to do performances as a regular way of life, I’d probably have to change that.

Again, at the Shedd, they measure out the daily allotment of food and train with it. Whatever is left over the animal gets at night. Really, overall, I would adopt this if I were performing daily.

As it is the horses get hay, a bit of grazing, and on my busy days, maybe only a few minutes of specialized training. They almost ALWAYS run to me from the pasture to work. Even when I have just hay pellets.

horse pellets

So my overall suggestion would be to take a step back. I would take whatever feed you have and see if you can combine it to a form where your animal can’t pick out the good parts. She will probably go through some form of extinction, she may not work as well for a bit. That’s OK, just train short sessions, offer what you have, quit EARLY and keep the sessions fun. Ultimately it’s the fun, the relationship and the food combined that will keep her wanting more.

Hope this helps.

About clickertraininghorses - Peggy Hogan

I teach people and train horses using positive reinforcement. The horses I work with are given choice, the freedom to volunteer behavior. The joy is that they strive to volunteer what works for both of us.
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1 Response to A closer look at food reinforcers

  1. Bea Pludow says:

    For some reason this post brought to mind an incident that happened while I was taming/training exotic birds, parrots, cockatoos, macaws. I got paid by the bird, when it would be ready to step off for someone else and go to a shop to become a pet. Sometimes these birds were rather dangerous because of their wild state. So picture a large Muluccan Cockatoo (Salmon Crested to some) We (the bird and I) had come to the stage where he was staying on my left arm while I walked slowly around. They are not graceful birds, rather top heavy, so this takes a little time. I was in the hall with him right when my employer asked to talk to me, I said sure and the bird lost his balance, as he fell he grabbed the inside of my arm above the elbow! MY LORD DID THAT HURT! I don’t know if I said something nasty then, but dropped my arm to the ground so the birds feet were on solid ground. Set him down and I flew to the freezer for Ice or anything cold as my arm was in bad shape! While I was holding the ice tray on my arm…….D called me in and without acknowledging my injury……Told me that things were not so good since his partners had fled and would I take a cut in pay! Mostly I heard “Take a cut in Pay! I looked at him, removed the tray so he could See my arm, and asked “What do You Think! The point of the story is, something very profound happened that day! I Wanted MORE reward for my job! Not the “peanuts” my employer was offering me! Needless to say…….not too long after this I accepted doing a job, of the same type, for a very high wage and lots of perks! Reminiscent of the difference between rewards! Not sure what it would be called when say a horse or dog was working for kibble and tripped up and hurt himself and was offered kibble instead of steak?

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