Reinforce This!

Written by Tiro Miller, PhD and the IAABC Editing Team

As trainers, one of the key skills we have to learn is reinforcement delivery. It looks like the easiest part of training but, in fact, it’s one of the parts that can cause the most frustration for teacher and learner! Errors in delivery can reinforce the wrong behavior (I once accidentally reinforced my dog sneezing because it took me too long to break off a piece of a treat — six years later she still sneezes at me when she wants something!). Or it can fail to be paired with any behavior at all, interfering with a carefully planned reinforcement schedule. Not to mention, fumbling over your bait bag can just plain ruin your training flow.

You can do a lot to improve your reinforcer delivery, from target practice to becoming a one-handed Pez dispenser. But one of the simplest tasks is to really get to know the species you’re training. Once you understand how they want to take the treats — how fast they chew, what shape their mouth is, whether they have any behavior patterns they need to do before they eat — then you’ll be able to figure out what skills you need to sharpen.

This is true for trainers of every species! Our IAABC members have shared these videos of reinforcing all kinds of animals, so that you can see how easy — and how tricky! — good training can be.

Emily Lewis and Zim the bearded dragon

“I’m using super worms here. For me the biggest difference is that Zim won’t eat the worm if it’s still, it needs to be moving for him to have interest/notice it’s there.”

Michelle Martiya and Trash the Kinkajou

“The treats are Annie’s brand gummies and the tongs are so that I don’t lose any fingers! Trash is usually pretty good and I can hand feed her, but all the kinkajous I’ve worked with seem more comfortable with the tongs.”

Trish McMillan

“Clicking and feeding my horse for touching the scary, horse-eating outhouse on our ride earlier today. My tips for teaching your horse to take treats gently:

  • Produce the treat in a way that the horse can see it. They have a blind spot right in front of their noses so they can get grabby if treats suddenly appear there.
  • Feed the horse where you want them, if you are on the ground feed them with their head straight so they won’t start wrapping their neck around you.
  • Don’t pre-load treats into your hand. You have time, the cadence is slower with a horse
  • Super high-value treats can make the horse over-aroused or grabby. This was the other half of the apple I gave him after I got on. I usually use hay stretcher pellets

Lindsay Tucker Walsh

“My kid training our cats, Meep and Pumpkin, using lickable treats as a reinforcer. Lickable treats are quick, clean and the cats go CRAZY for them. Also, they’re easy to grab.”

Michelle Martiya

“Here I’m reinforcing a porcupine with one of their own quills for the delivery!”

Katenna Jones and Isabella the chicken

“Chickens peck quickly! Pay attention or they’ll eat a lot. They’re messy peckers too, so try to limit what gets dropped, because they can get distracted and eat that (sometimes reinforcing the wrong thing at the wrong time). You might want to minimize, remove, hide, or habituate them to little “distractions” like jean rivets, skin moles, earrings, etc. Mine have pecked diamonds right out of my ear lobes!”

Tabitha Davies and Ryker the brachcephalic dog

“Treats need to be in tiny pieces and they need to be well placed, or brachycephalic dogs don’t get them in their mouths, and instead start searching for them.”

Carolina Gálvez Vidal adds: “Delivering treats to Sharpeis also has its tricks because they have face and muzzle like a manatee! So you have to kind of go down and up with your hand to get the treat into those manatee floppy lips!”

Paula Ferrel

“For training I find that my rabbit likes pellet-type treats because she gets very few pellets. No matter the treat I find they have to chew, so training is stop and go. Waiting for her to finish her treat is much different than training my dog who very rarely chews the small treats I give. More patience is needed!”

Uli Grodeke and Sissy the tortoise

My tortoise Sissy learning to touch the screen. She never gets fruit except for new training steps like this. Here it’s thin apple slices with some crushed eggshells. Sissy’s mouth is so small, but she is so quick in her responses, I never have the time to pick up individual treats with tweezers. But the tiny pieces I kept on a plate nearby stuck to my nails/fingers.

So, I started to use long and thin slices of apple and carrot (I used the peels tool). Arugula leaves, dandelion, hibiscus, and other leaves in long strips work well, too. The slices have to be long enough to be used for several reinforcements and thin enough that the tortoise can bite an exact mouthful off. Otherwise they get frustrated when they can’t get a piece into their mouths, they might bite you by mistake or start using their front feet (mine do at least) – that makes you lose concentration, too.

Stephanie Edlund

Parrots have way longer necks than people think (that stubby looking neck is an S-shape under all that fluff)! Learn how to deliver a treat that a bird has to stretch for, and how to hold it between the thumb and forefinger to avoid getting accidentally chomped.

And here’s a myriad of other species too!

Thanks to everyone who took part — if you want to be a part of the next Reinforce This!, send an email to with your video.