competing reinforcers

The Case of the Competing Reinforcers

Ever feel stuck with a certain behavior and animal? The behavior is solid in one location and then other times it’s non-existent. You might be struggling with competing reinforcers.

It was a Tuesday afternoon, Trainer Suzy was tasked with taking Petunia Porcupine for a walk.  She entered the holding area at 12:45pm. The porcupine was sleeping in a pile of bedding in the corner.

She approached the enclosure and entered.  At approximately 12:48pm she asked the porcupine to go into the crate.  Petunia Porcupine stayed in the corner of the enclosure, with her quills facing the trainer.

Trainer Suzy was persistent and eventually the Petunia Porcupine complied with going in the crate.  At 1:03pm, trainer Suzy and Back-up Jack positioned the crate next to the animal demo area, Petunia porcupine scratching at the door from inside.  Then Trainer Suzy opened up the crate door and clipped on the leash.

Petunia Porcupine stomped in the back of the crate refusing to exit. Trainer Suzy persisted and coaxed.  She tried targeting in the crate to gain some behavioral momentum.  After that, she moved the crate to a shady area to see if the difference in light was playing into the situation.  She attempted to lure, and bait, and eventually, beg.

To no avail.  Petunia Porcupine who spent 15 minutes refusing to get into her crate, now refused to get out.

Back-up Jack said to Trainer Suzy, “What we have here is a case of competing reinforcers.”

Reinforcement is relative.

In this case Petunia Porcupine loves her house.  It’s safe. It’s temperature controlled. She might get a large amount of reinforcement delivered there. Her favorite enrichment is there.  She gets scratches in her house.  She takes long naps there.

Her crate on the other hand is a wild card.  It’s associated with primary reinforcement, but is that reinforcement consistent?  Does the crate always take her to a fun, happy experience?  Does the crate take her to scary places? Is she a chunky Petunia Porcupine who doesn’t really need primary reinforcement? If Trainer Suzy hasn’t thought of all of these things, and many more she may have inadvertently caused her house to be more reinforcing than her crate.

So then why doesn’t she want to come out of the crate when she’s finally inside of it?

Walks have been paired with primary reinforcement.  She get’s to explore the outdoors, enjoy the sunshine, and meet new people.

Again we need to ask, has Trainer Suzy been consistent with her reinforcement?  Is there natural history that might be causing Petunia to prefer her crate over a sunny walk? In this case, her safe, dark, crate is more reinforcing than the walk.


So what do we do to balance our reinforcement? The options are limitless!

Can we make walks more reinforcing by offering a special food treat on the walk?  What about training a behavior that is highly reliable and therefore reinforcing like mark? Or what if we move the crate into the shade to decrease the harsh contrast of light to dark? What about offering enrichment in the crate?  Could we give scratches in the crate and pair that with food?

Brainstorming sessions can come in incredibly helpful in these situations. Get your team together and solve the mystery!

Listen to our podcast about competing reinforcers here! 

Download the competing reinforcer worksheet to work through your challenges!

Competing Reinforcers (1502 downloads)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow by Email