Operant Conditioning
"The truth about positive vs. negative dog training methods"

Let’s say it again: Operant conditioning...

What does that mean? … It means learning (conditioning) that -what I do- (operant, as in operator) has a consequence.

You might have heard about positive vs. negative training methods, or using reinforcement or reward vs. punishment.

You will be surprised to learn that they do not always mean what you think they do!

Learn here the psycology behind dog training to effectively teach your pooch.

So what is the truth about positive vs. negative dog training techniques?

Dog trainers and people in general use the term “positive” to imply that they use rewards as the main dog training technique. They use “negative” to imply an obedience method based on corrections.

But the reality is that both groups will use “positive” and “negative” along their training history with their dogs. Here is why...


Operant conditioning is how we learn to associate our own behavior with a consequence.


There are 4 possibilities


1- Positive Reinforcement

2- Positive Punishment

3- Negative Reinforcement

4- Negative Punishment

Let’s break those 4 possibilities down into their basic components.

Positive and negative..

...do not mean “good” or “bad".

Positive means to give (i.e.: give a treat, give a jerk on the leash).

Negative means to take away (i.e: take away your attention, take away the pressure on a choke chain).

So, you see? positive can be “good” or “bad” depending on what you are giving your dog. And negative can also be “good or bad” depending on what you take away.

Reinforcement and punishment...

... do not mean “good” or “bad” by your standards.

Reinforcement means that the behavior will happen more often.

Punishment means that the behavior will happen less often.

Reinforcement and punishment are defined by the outcome!

Here is an example:

You give (positive) your canine friend a pat on the head (reinforcement?) every time he sits next to you. So you can assume that is “positive reinforcement”

Well, no, it’s not what you are thinking...

You notice that your dog does not sit next to you more often, it actually happens less often!
You rewarded him with a pat! why isn’t he sitting next to you? …

… because the pat on the head was not a reward for him. He actually hates when you pat him on the head! (some dogs do!).

So, you did give (positive) him something - the pat on the head - BUT there is a behavior that happens less often (punishment).

You just used positive punishment!


A reward is only a reward if the animal increases the likelihood of the behavior!

An aversive event is only a punishment if the animal decreases the likelihood of the behavior!


Visualize it!

To help you understand the four possibilities use the following "No Jumping" example and think - What option am I using?- with everything you teach your furry friend!

Operant Conditioning in dog training

You could use either of the 4 possibilities of Operant Conditioning.

The idea is to use the most effective one for each particular behavior.

I personally discourage dog parents and trainers alike to rely on positive punishment.

  • It is very hard to use correctly!
  • It is not effective in the long term because your pooch will figure out a way to do what he wants and avoid the punishment (kind of like using loopholes in our law system).
  • It discourages you canine companion instead of making him eager for a training session.
  • It can actually make your dog "shut down". He won't try new things because he is afraid he might get punished.

Why is it important to learn this?

Because you can control the consequences of every behavior. Just reward the ones you like and (I recommend) ignore the ones you do not like.

What about dog commands?

Up until now I gave you information on how to make your dog do a behavior more or less often.

You want more?...

...You want your dog to do the behavior on command only?

Well, here is the secret:

The principles of Operant Conditioning also work with a "Red light-Green light" system.

Your cue or command will be the green light, if you say it and your dog responds - Mark and Reward! If you don't say it and your dog does the behavior anyway - Ignore it!

With many repetitions (remember Practice Practice Practice!) your pet will learn that he only gets a reward when he responds to the command. The absence of the command will be the red light.


Command -> Behavior -> Reward!

No command -> Behavior -> No reward



Tips to teach your dog a command

  • Before you add a verbal cue or hand signal your dog should be "throwing" the behavior at you! Which means he is doing the behavior often during a training session.
  • Say the command and wait. Reward the first behavior that happens after the command. Repeat many times.
  • Don't say the command and ignore any behaviors that happen. Repeat alternating with the previous step.
  • When your dog is reliably responding to your verbal command (8 out of 10 times) you are ready for the next step! Read "How to get a reliable dog training command" for a step-by-step guide!

I will be helping you every step of the way as we learn how to teach your dog some basic commands. I promise that with practice, operant conditioning, will become second nature to you!

Now it's time to learn about Extinction and how it can help us get rid of problem behaviors! Click to learn more!


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