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Operant Conditioning - by Ruth Kellogg

All dog training methods stem from operant conditioning whether the methods use positive or negative reinforcements as their primary motivators. This emphasizes the importance of operant conditioning. Without such understanding we will not be able to educate our dogs effectively.

To review, in operant conditioning, the subject changes its behavior in response to the effects the new behavior has on its environment. In 1938, B.F. Skinner developed the basic concept of operant conditioning. He claimed this type of learning was not the result of stimulus-response learning (i.e. classical/Pavlovian conditioning) but rather of the subject making a choice and the resultant reinforcer of that choice. Skinner chose the term “operant” conditioning to denote that the subject is the operator as it were of its choices and not just a passive participant.

Skinner learned there are two kinds of reinforcement that strengthen the subject’s response thus increasing the probability that the behavior would reoccur. One of the reinforcements (positive) ADDS something pleasurable to the subject (eg. food treat). The other reinforcer (negative) accomplishes its effect by REMOVING something unpleasant or adverse to the subject’s environment (eg. tight choke collar or ear pinch).

He also learned there are two punishments which weaken the probability that the behavior will reoccur. The first, positive punishment, adds a direct or adverse effect to the subject (eg. strong jerk of choke collar). The other punishment (negative punishment) has also been termed extinction. In this, an undesired behavior has no effect upon the subject’s environment and will then fade as the subject receives no reinforcement. (Eg. A dog who begs for a treat will eventually give up if he is totally ignored every time. Any attention or reaction from the person with the food whether it be positive or negative attention will only increase the begging behavior.)

Skinner found that the two punishment methods are not as effective as the reinforcement methods. In punishment, the focus is not on the actual action of the subject but what the behavior should be. It also can elicit some undesired emotions (eg. resentment, anger, apathy), psychological problems, and not be conducive to continued relationships.

Specifically, in dog training these four effects of operant conditioning are generally known as Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Punishment, and Extinction. While the current trend is teaching dogs using positive reinforcement, there are times, I believe, when each of the other methods must be used. The danger in following one method exclusively is that the trainer becomes so blinded by “their method” that the individual dog and its unique needs are forgotten. What may work well with one dog (or a particular breed) may be totally different from what is needed with a different dog or breed.

As mentioned previously, there is a plethora of information available on the various methods and cures for dog training and dog related problems. It is impossible to explore the scope of each method thoroughly in an article so I encourage readers to search out the information that is available. Every person who has trained many dogs has favorite methods, teachers, and ideas that they use. I urge each trainer to search for new ideas constantly. While you may not agree with all the methods a particular person uses, perhaps something they say or do might be useful to try.

At this point, I’ll briefly cover the four methods of Operant Conditioning.

Positive Reinforcement

This type of teaching became more mainstream in dog training in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Now it is the most common “method” being taught. To review, in positive reinforcement training, the subject (dog) receives a pleasurable effect (treat, pat, play with a toy...) after changing its behavior to what the trainer wants. The dog has the choice to modify its behavior (and thus get a treat etc.) or not to modify its behavior (and not get the treat etc.). Dogs are not stupid beings. Like us, they enjoy pleasure and pleasurable events so will “work” for these rewards. In true positive reinforcement work, there is no pain only gain (of pleasure) in a training session. Common and becoming mainstream methods are lure training (eg. luring the puppy into a down position by having it follow a food treat) and clicker training. The biggest advantage of positive reinforcement is the positive attitude developed towards learning in both dog and trainer.

Negative Reinforcement

This is the “old style” of dog training that is seen with heavy usages of choke collars, jerking leashes, and ear-pinching. To review, in negative reinforcement, the subject (dog) modifies its behavior to stop or avoid an unpleasant adverse condition. The dog has a choice to change its behavior (e.g. opens its mouth for the dumbbell and thus receives relief from the uncomfortable ear-pinch) or not (keep its mouth shut thus enduring pain). Yes, there can be very strong behavior patterns set in. An example is the quick moving out in heeling positions to avoid the “ pop of the lead (and sudden tightening of choke collar) after the command “heel” is given. It must be emphasized that this method is fear-based. With intelligent independent dogs, this type of training builds strong negative feelings of resentment, anger, and eventual apathy creating the resulting effect of a dog who is lackluster in its work - if it works at all.


To review, a behavior is weakened by the consequence of experiencing a negative condition. It should be emphasized that punishment’s purpose is to change the subject’s behavior to what it should be and does not have direct correlation to the subject’s actual actions. An example is punishing a dog (verbally, physically) for chewing a forbidden object after the dog has long since stopped chewing it. In the vast majority of punishment scenarios, the only individual receiving reinforcement is the one doing the punishment (release of anger/frustration). This can create a strong undesired behavior pattern in the handler/punisher while having the effect of increasing fear and lack of trust (to the handler) in the subject (dog.) One-trial learning comes under the umbrella of punishment in its methods. In this, the subject receives such a strong negative effect to its behavior that it learns (in one trial) not to repeat that particular behavior. An example is a curious puppy sniffing a lit candle. The flame hurts the puppy’s nose (negative condition) and the puppy is unlikely to sniff a burning candle again. Thus the behavior is weakened.


To review this term, the behavior is weakened by the subject not experiencing a positive result nor stopping a negative result by its behavior. With more attempts (repetitions) of the same behavior and achieving the same lack of results, the behavior will fade away. This can be useful in our dog’s education. An example is crate-training a puppy. If you know the puppy is not physically stressed (doesn’t need to eliminate, has been fed and watered, isn’t too hot or cold) and is just being noisy and complaining, ignoring the noisy pup until it is quiet will (eventually) extinguish the tantrum-like behavior. The ignored noisy behavior is extinguished as it did not get rewarded by the owner’s positive or negative attention/ reinforcement. When the pup is finally quiet for a while, going to the pup and possibly releasing it from the crate rewards the pup for its quiet (positive) behavior. The pup learns that temper tantrums have no effect while being quiet has a positive effect. The temper tantrums do fade.

It is important to understand the difference between reinforcement and reward. Reinforcement (positive or negative) can be termed as anything that when used in conjunction with a behavior can increase the probability of that behavior reoccurring. It occurs during or immediately after the conclusion of the desired behavior. (In this way it gives the subject/dog immediate information about its behavior.) Reward or punishment both occur after the act is completed. There is little or no direct correlation between the behavior performed and the reward/punishment as the emphasis is on the behavior desired.

Next article, I shall focus on the Positive Reinforcement method of Operant Conditioning.

Copyright © 2002 Ruth Kellogg. All rights reserved.

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