What’s a good reinforcer for an elephant?

Regarding finding valuable reinforcers:

“One keeper I met learned that an elephant will perform for a single miniature marshmallow.”

This is from Temple Grandin’s latest book, Animals Make Us Human. (I also blogged recently about her discussions on introducing scary objects and stereotypical behaviors.)

I find many people object to adding a clicker to their training because they think they are going to have to constantly be giving their animal large amounts of unhealthy food. Really, though, training with positive motivation doesn’t mean a trainer is constantly shoving a never ending flow of carrots and sugar cubes in a horse’s mouth.

Positive reinforcement just means that something is added following the behavior that will increase the rate of the behavior. Food naturally works well, but plenty of other things are reinforcing too, such as scratches or getting to play with a toy. I’ve written before about choosing good reinforcers.

Different reinforcers work better for different animals and different situations. Sometimes, we even inadvertently reinforce behavior that we don’t want! For instance, if a parent gives a screaming kid a candy bar to make him shut up at the grocery store, the candy often reinforces screaming. The kid liked the candy bar, so he’ll be more likely to scream next time.

If you aren’t getting the desired results in your training, stop and consider what you’re using for reinforcers. What does the animal or person get for performing the behavior? Is this enough to motivate them to perform the behavior and to convince them that the behavior is worth performing in the future?

I’d love to hear any fun and new ideas for different reinforcers that your animals love!

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