What Does the Animal Really Want?

Animal trainers have a long history of searching for the perfect food item to reinforce desired responses. In fact, it is often one of the first steps trainers suggest before training commences, “try to determine preferred food items so that one can reinforce behavior.” I admit this has been a part of my training history and teachings.  However, a relatively new perspective gaining more attention in the animal training community now has us viewing this practice as "putting the cart before the horse," especially when it comes to resolving undesired behavior. And we are seeing it can also be very relevant when shaping new desired responses as well.

Here is an example with my blue-throated macaw. Yes, like many animal trainers I initially shaped a step-up behavior using food as a reinforcer. I was able to identify pinenuts as a preferred food item and use this to shape approximations towards stepping up on the hand. But over the years it’s become very apparent that most of the time food is pretty low on the totem pole in terms of desired outcomes for my bird. In fact, I now enjoy exploring the functional reinforcers for her behavior. Meaning what does she really want when she emits a certain behavior. And what are the reinforcers that maintain those specific behaviors. These may also be described as the naturally existing reinforcers that maintain behavior that have nothing to do with food or other contrived reinforcers that I have assumed she would want during a training session.

Most days Blu Lu travels to an outdoor aviary via a travel cage. Because she’s flighted, this involves stepping up onto my hand several times a day to enter her transport cage to safely move between the house and her aviary. This provides many opportunities to observe interesting functional reinforcers. When she steps up on my hand inside the aviary, she will take pine nuts if offered, but the moment I turn my head to look at her and open my eyes wide, her feet squeeze my hand extra tight, and her eyes open wide. She moves her head side to side. This species typical social interaction I take as something quite valued to her. Her face also flushes red, which for those of you who have history with macaws may recognize is usually indicative of a little extra arousal. To me I would interpret this as the social interaction with me that is more appetitive to her than accessing food items.

After she loads into her crate we return to the house where she again steps onto my hand but this time engaging with my face doesn’t seem to be the consequence, she seeks. Instead, she cranes her neck towards a silver garbage can that holds my dog’s food. In the evening, the lid is usually off because I’ve just fed the dog. She’s usually trying to peer into the can. Stepping onto my hand means an elevator ride to the garbage can and an opportunity to investigate this potential nest cavity. Once we arrive at the garbage can there’s no more leaning. Her weight is distributed comfortably on my hand and she peers into the can. Just a minute or two seems to be enough to satisfy her. And because it’s evening, she is often ready to return to her enclosure to roost for the night. Even if I tried to offer her food for stepping onto the hand prior to bringing her to the garbage it would be ignored. It simply is not the desired outcome she is seeking.

Blu Lu isn’t the only animal with which I use functional reinforcers. Now I frequently pay more attention to the animal and try to determine what is the desired outcome it is seeking by emitting the behavior in question. Whether it is a tiger seeking distance from an aversive stimulus, my dog turning left on our walk to explore the smells of the neighborhood, or an orangutan sitting in a doorway making closing the door impossible, further investigation often reveals more information and one of the most important tools for influencing behavior….the functional reinforcer.

 If you want to learn more about functional reinforcers, animal training, and behavior science join AnimalTrainingFundamentals.com


Here are additional resources within the virtual educational program AnimalTrainingFundamentals.com where you can learn more.

YOU be the Behavior Consultant - Contrived Vs Naturally Existing Reinforcement

Hope for the Hopeless. Transforming the Behavior of Exotic Animals Once Thought Impossible to Train


By Barbara Heidenreich - Animal Training Consultant
June 12, 2022

About the Author: Barbara Heidenreich is an animal training consultant specializing in exotic animals. She consults worldwide working with zoos, universities, veterinary professionals, and conservation projects. She has worked onsite with over 80 facilities in 27 countries. She is an adjunct instructor at Texas A & M University. She has authored two books and contributed to four veterinary textbooks. She is a co-author of two Fear Free® Avian Certification Courses. Much of her work focuses on training exotic species to cooperate in medical care. She operates the online education program AnimalTrainingFundamentals.com. This virtual learning program features award winning courses, tracks to guide professional development, verifiable badges to share and prove course completion, community, and more. Barbara is an advisor for the Animal Training Working Group and the Parrot Taxon Advisory Group for the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She has provided her expertise to conservation projects The Kakapo Recovery Program and The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. She has a Bachelor of Science in zoology and has begun the journey towards a Master of Science in applied behavior analysis. Her goal is to leave behind a legacy of kindness to animals by sharing her expertise.