Operant Conditioning
"Using positive vs. negative dog training methods correctly"

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.

All training methods, no matter how they're called, are based on the principles of classical and operant conditioning. Both punishment and rewards are an integral part of this theory that explains some of the most basic ways animals learn. All animals, including us, humans.

By learning the psychology principles behind dog training through operant conditioning examples, you will be able to teach your pooch to do what you ask in more effective ways.

Let me tell you a little extra secret too: this concept will also become handy when dealing with unruly kids, a difficult mother-in-law, a messy husband/wife or a misbehaving cat! It is basic animal psychology and that is why it applies to all species.

Positive vs. negative dog training techniques explained

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 (+R)

2- Positive Punishment (+P)

3- Negative Reinforcement (-R)

4- Negative Punishment (-P)

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!

Operant conditioning quadrantsThe four possibilities are often explained using this 4 quadrant chart.

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 it when you pat him on the head! (some dogs really do, if this is your case, rubbing below the chin is better).

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 reinforcer is only reinforcing if the animal increases the likelihood of the behavior!

A punishment is only punishing 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

More operant conditioning examples

If you are following this so far, you will come to realize that these 4 possibilities are often different sides of the same coin. For example, a dog barks at the dinner table begging for food, the owner gives the dog food. What is going on?

From the point of view of the dog, he was given (positive) food for barking, so in the future it is very likely that he will continue barking for food at the table (Reinforcement).

On the other hand, from the point of view of the owner he hated the constant barking but as soon as he gave the dog food, the barking stopped (negative), so it is likely that the owner will continue giving food to the dog at the table to keep him quiet (Reinforcement). You see? you have two events happening simultaneously but they are two different squares of the quadrant.

If you are studying to take a test (in psychology or to become a dog trainer), the way a sentence is phrased will tell you what quadrant you should pick. For example, a dog that barks less often (punishment: behavior decreases) is also a dog that is quiet more often (reinforcement: behavior increases). If the senteces says "barks less often, then choose punishment, if it says "is quiet more often" then it is reinforcement. 

Timing in training is key. If you give a treat late, you might be rewarding something completely different from what you thought you were. In the example above, if the owner chooses to give food when the dog is quiet instead, then the quiet behavior will increase instead.

Operant conditioning examplesThis are made up examples, you can see how you can probably sort every action you do and its consequence in one of these 4 operant conditioning quadrants

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 for 2 reasons: 1- Even if you punish with excellent timing, your dog my still associate the punishment with something different (i.e., puppy bites your hand, you hit him in the nose --> puppy is now afraid of hands and may or may not continue biting. 2- If your timing is poor, your dog will get very frustrated (because he won't be able to figure out how to avoid the punishment) and this will create more undesirable behaviors.
  • 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.

If you are interested in learning more about learning principles I highly recommend these 2 books. They are written for you and me (dog trainers and dog owners/lovers). These books skip all the hard-to-remember jargon of textbooks and still teach you everything you need to know...and they are fun to read too!

Excel-erated Learning: Explaining in plain English how dogs learn and how best to teach them

Excel-erated Learning by Dr. Pamela Reid is a great book that goes beyond operant conditioning and into sensitization, schedules of reinforcement and more. It is well written, concise and inexpensive.

Don't Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training 3rd (third) by Pryor, Karen (2006) Paperback

Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog is a classic! If you haven't already, you MUST read this book now. I have read it a few times myself.

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?

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.

This is called to have a behavior under "stimulus control".

Hope my website is helping you better understand and train your dog. Do you want to help? For as little as $1 a month you can be my Patron and get exclusive benefits while helping me to continue to create the best and most updated content about dog training and positive methods. Be a modern philanthropist through Patreon.com

Tips to teach your dog a command/cue

  • 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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