Operant Conditioning Techniques of Dogs

by Simon Foden Google
    Physical touch provides positive reinforcement.

    Physical touch provides positive reinforcement.

    Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images

    B.F. Skinner's acclaimed studies into animal behavior found that research animals, especially his preferred pigeons, learn best by associating an action with a consequence. Boiled down and applied to humans and canines as well, operant conditioning relies on discouraging and encouraging behavior with immediate consequences -- for example, giving a treat when your dog sits.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    Most noted dog trainers, including Cesar Milan and Victoria Stilwell, 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. Stilwell ignores dogs when they attention seek, for example. Dog trainers typically disapprove of negative reinforcement, although Milan has used it in his shows, to criticism from his peers. While negative punishment sounds like an unkind method of training, it is actually an effective and kind operant conditioning technique that simply flips around the principle of positive punishment.

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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.

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