Reinforcement Systems

This course is Part 1 in the Shaping Skills Workshop.

Learn more about the other courses in the Shaping Skills Workshop on this page.

Course description

In this class, you will learn about reinforcement systems. A reinforcement system describes the back-and-forth interaction that happens between a teacher and a learner during the delivery of a reinforcer.

Unfortunately, reinforcement systems are often overlooked during teaching. Learning will be much slower if your reinforcement system is poorly designed or if your learner does not understand certain elements of your reinforcement system. Small adjustments to your reinforcement system can have a huge impact on learning.

During the course, you will learn what a reinforcement system is, the elements of a reinforcement system, and how to diagram and analyze reinforcement systems. This is a hands-on course. You’ll use a shaping game called PORTL to explore the idea of the reinforcement system and to practice your reinforcement delivery and timing. In addition, you will design, build, evaluate, and improve a reinforcement system for an animal learner.

If you want to look closely at the fine details of your training sessions and better understand the nitty-gritty of how reinforcement works, you’ll love this course!

What is included as part of this course?

Active-learning lessons: This course is divided into a series of self-paced lessons. Short, recorded videos and text will introduce you to core concepts and big ideas. Then, you’ll spend the bulk of your time in each lesson practicing your skills with human and animal learners.

Video coaching: You can upload short, private videos of your training sessions directly into the course platform. Then, you’ll receive detailed feedback and suggestions from your instructor, Mary Hunter, and her course assistants.

Weekly discussion hour: These Zoom sessions will include guided discussion topics, as well as opportunities to ask questions and talk about your progress. You can attend some, none, or all of these sessions. For the August 2023 class, the discussion times will be held on Tuesdays from 1:30–2:30 p.m. Central Time.

Virtual learning community: Each course is limited to a small group. You’ll be able to connect with your classmates on our private class platform to ask questions and discuss what you are learning in the course.

Ongoing support: Your instructor, Mary Hunter, and her teaching assistants will be available every step of the way to answer your questions and provide guidance on your videos and assignments. You’ll receive constructive feedback and support which will help you improve your teaching skills.

What students are saying

Fabulous course for either establishing or refining your teaching. Mary has a rare gift for listening to her human learners and responding to their needs.
~Diane H.

I am so glad I took this course! I learned that a critical foundation piece was missing from my training skills. Thinking about and planning how to deliver the reinforcer is now at the top of my mind before I go to teach my dog a new behavior. Teaching and practicing the reinforcer delivery method with my animal before beginning the session is also a step that I was missing. This course has highlighted some very critical gaps in my training, which I now hope to integrate as a normal part of my training going forward so that my animals will have a much clearer picture of what I want them to do. Surely it can only make training more fun for both of us!
~Wendy T.

Just being aware of the reinforcement system, viewing it as a stand-alone skill, and having the language to explain it has changed the way I coach.
~Megan S.

As usual, your feedback was kind and spot-on.
I always learned something from your observations.
~Leslie G.

Great workshop! Mary is an amazing teacher. I already did many theoretical courses on applied behaviour analysis and it’s great to actually learn how to put this in practice with a teacher that has so much knowledge to guide me. Thanks Mary!
~Patricia G.


Prerequisites: None. This course is appropriate for those who are newer to animal training and the idea of reinforcement systems, as well as experienced professionals. Previous participants have included pet owners and novice trainers, professional animal trainers, behavior analysts, veterinarians, and zoo professionals.

Course length: Six weeks

Registration: This course is generally offered once or twice per year and is limited to a small group of participants. Contact us to join the wait list and to be informed about future courses.

Cost: $475 (pay in full).

Time payments: Make three payments of $165. Contact us to register using time payments.

Class materials: You will need a copy of the PORTL manual and a PORTL kit. Once you register for the workshop, you will receive instructions for how to purchase these materials at a discounted price.

Refund policy: A complete refund (less a $50 processing fee) will be available if requested on or before three days before the beginning of a class. No refunds will be available after this date.

About your instructor

Mary Hunter earned an undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Chicago in 2008 and a master’s degree in behavior analysis from the University of North Texas in 2013. Her master’s thesis was published in 2019 in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior

Mary owns her own animal training and consulting business in North Texas, working mainly with horses and dogs and their owners. She also serves as president of the Art and Science of Animal Training, a nonprofit organization that provides educational programs for professional animal trainers. 

From 2016-2019, Mary taught classes in the behavior analysis department at the University of North Texas. This led to an interest in instructional design and course development. In 2017, she converted an upper-level undergraduate class into a completely self-paced, mastery-based course using Dr. Fred Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction (PSI). 

Mary’s research interests include studying the process of shaping and developing better methods for teaching both people and animals.

Frequently asked questions

I’m a beginner. Is this workshop for me?

Yes! You’re in the right place. This workshop consists of a series of thoughtfully-designed, step-by-step activities that build from simple to more complex. The self-paced, mastery-based nature of the course will help ensure your success at every step. You’ll have access to clear directions, video examples, and feedback and guidance from your instructor, Mary Hunter.

I’m an experienced professional. Is this workshop for me?

Yes! You’re in the right place. There’s always more to learn when it comes to teaching. This course will give you new ways to think about shaping and reinforcing behaviors. In addition, you’ll learn interactive activities and approaches you can use when training your staff or clients.

I need to teach my animal how to ___(fill in the blank)___ . Is this workshop for me?

The purpose of the Shaping Skills Workshop is to build your skills as a trainer. As you work through this series of courses, you’ll learn more about how learning works and improve your skills so that you can teach a variety of behaviors to animal and human learners. If you have an immediate, pressing behavior that needs to be taught, you may be better off working one-on-one with a private instructor, rather than (or in addition to) taking these courses.

How much time will the workshop take?

You should plan to dedicate around three hours a week to the workshop. You will have lessons to complete each week in the class platform. Lessons will include videos and text, as well as hands-on assignments that you will do with a pet and using the shaping game PORTL. You’ll be able to work on your own schedule to complete the lessons. In addition, you’ll have the option to attend a weekly hour-long discussion session.

How do I access the workshop?

Approximately one week before the start of your class, you will receive an email message with instructions for how to access the class platform. Your instructor, Mary Hunter, will be available to offer support if you have any issues with the class platform.

I’m really interested, but I’m not sure if this workshop is for me. How can I learn more?

Please contact us with your questions! We would be happy to talk to you more about this program and about whether it would be a good fit for you.

What is your refund policy?

A complete refund (less a $50 processing fee) will be available if requested on or before three days before the beginning of a class. No refunds will be available after this date. We understand that not every class is a good fit for every student and, as well, that sometimes life gets in the way when you are trying to complete a class. However, because of the small group nature of these courses and the amount of instructor time and energy that goes into each course, we cannot offer refunds after this date.

We care greatly about the success of our students. If you are taking a course and are not happy about the course or with your progress, please let us know so we can offer you the help and support that you need.

I still have questions about these courses.

Contact us! We would love to chat with you.