About Operant Conditioning Dog Training

By Simon Foden

B.F. Skinner's renowned studies in the field of behaviorism found that pigeons were able to learn certain behaviors by associating actions with (researcher-controlled) consequences--a process called operant conditioning. Subsequent researchers found that this was true of other animals as well, including dogs, and dog trainers have been using operant conditioning training techniques ever since. The techniques relies on discouraging and encouraging behavior with immediate consequences -- for example, giving a treat when your dog sits.

Positive Reinforcement

The simple process of rewarding a dog when he performs a behavior increases the chances that he'll repeat it. Here is positive reinforcement in its kindest form. For example, when you give your dog a treat for sitting, over time, he learns that sitting elicits the positive outcome of receiving a treat. Eventually, he’ll sit voluntarily, because he’s built a positive relationship in his own mind with the required action.

Positive Punishment

Mobster movies contain perfect examples of negative reinforcement. Holding someone out of a window until they tell you what want to know is a great way to get a result, but it's no way to treat a friend. Choke or prong collars work on the same theory. For as long as the dog pulls on the leash, the collar pinches him. Only when he stops pulling does he experience the relief of the collar loosening. You may get quick results, but dogs trained with negative reinforcement most likely have a fear of the reinforcer, not a desire to please the owner.

Negative Reinforcement

Mobster movies contain perfect examples of negative reinforcement. Holding someone out of a window until they tell you what want to know is a great way to get a result, but it's no way to treat a friend. Choke or prong collars work on the same theory. For as long as the dog pulls on the leash, the collar pinches him. Only when he stops pulling does he experience the relief of the collar loosening. You may get quick results, but dogs trained with negative reinforcement most likely have a fear of the reinforcer, not a desire to please the owner.

Negative Punishment

Instead of punishing unwanted behavior, you reward normal behavior. Then take away the reward when Fido steps out of line. It’s a bit like letting your kids play with their toys, but taking them away if they act out. For example, if you want your dog to stop pulling at the leash, praise him verbally for as long as he walks politely, then ignore him if he pulls. He'll eventually learn that walking nicely has a positive outcome, while pulling has a negative outcome.

Application

Most noted dog trainers rely on a schedule of positive reinforcement. It's kind and doesn't involve fear or pain. Positive punishment has its place as a last resort when positive reinforcement fails. While negative punishment may sound like an unkind method of training, it can actually be an effective and kind operant conditioning technique (unlike negative reinforcement) that simply flips around the principle of positive punishment.

By Simon Foden

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About the Author
Simon Foden has been a freelance writer and editor since 1999. He began his writing career after graduating with a Bachelors of Arts degree in music from Salford University. He has contributed to and written for various magazines including "K9 Magazine" and "Pet Friendly Magazine." He has also written for Dogmagazine.net.