top of page

Operant Conditioning

Updated: May 17

"The ideal of behaviorism is to eliminate coercion: to apply controls by changing the environment in such a way as to reinforce the kind of behavior that benefits everyone." -B.F. Skinner

To reinforce is to make something more likely to occur in the future. To punish is to make something less likely to occur in the future. Simple, right? Wrong! This is the dog training world and the old adage "the only thing you can get two dog trainers to agree upon is that the third trainer has no idea what they are doing." There are countless topics or subjects in the dog training world that creates a never ending supply of arguments but few create such heated debates as the "positive only" vs "balanced trainer" debate. More often than not, its not really a disagreement on process as much as it is a debate on terminology. That being said, we are going to leave the opinions on positive vs balanced trainers alone and focus in on the actual terminology and how Operant Conditioning was actually defined by B.F. Skinner. I have found in the years of discussing this topic with numerous trainers that the common misunderstanding when it comes to Operant Conditioning is the intended usage of "Positive" and "Negative." So many people naturally think of the terms in the light of "good" vs "bad." You're either an optimistic positive thinker (good thoughts) or a pessimistic negative thinker (bad thoughts). When it comes to Operant Conditioning that would be incorrect. The terms within behavioral theory simply mean adding and subtracting. Positive is adding something and negative is subtracting something. Couple that with the previous terms "reinforcement" and "punishment" to define if you're trying to make something more likely or less likely to occur in the future. So "positive" can be adding something as reinforcement (+R) or as punishment (+P). For example, lets say your dog welcomes you every day at the front door by jumping up and putting their paws on your waist to say hello. Some people like this while other people hate this. So the question then becomes whether you want to encourage the behavior or discourage the behavior. You can use Positive Reinforcement (+R) to reward the behavior by giving the dog attention or kibble for doing the behavior, making it more likely to occur. Conversely, you can use Positive Punishment (+P) and discourage the behavior by a verbal correction or physical pressure such as blocking the behavior with your knee. Both options are on the Positive side of the theory because you're adding something. Its the desired intent of what you're adding that determines whether its Reinforcement or Punishment.

As discussed previously on the topic of Classical Conditioning, the 4 quadrants of behavioral theory (+R, +P, -R, and -P) are built in to our methods whether we acknowledge them or not. Some trainers attempt to use Positive Reinforcement ONLY to train their dogs while others fall into the Negative Reinforcement quadrant and never explore others. No matter your outlook or preference, what matters is considering why either approach works or doesn't work. Begin recognizing what is actually teaching your dog and how it’s being absorbed. I personally don't understand why some trainers willingly pigeonhole themselves within one corner (whether they actually stay in that corner or not is another conversation) and limit the options in front of them. Simply put, there are dog behaviors that we, as owners, want to see more and other behaviors we would prefer to stop. There are actually plenty of examples where the same stimulus can be both a reinforcer as well as a punishment depending on how you use it. For example: a denial on a retrieve. If the dog was allowed the retrieve because it remained steady then the bumper/bird was positive reinforcement to make the accomplished steadiness more likely to happen again. If the dog didn't remain steady so you deny them the retrieve, then that same bumper/bird was a negative punishment because you took the object away to make them breaking less likely to happen again. You may be asking yourself why this is important to label this if it's already built into the methods. The answer is because you start to understand why something works or doesn't work within the method. You'll start recognizing why your dog performed this task quickly and enthusiastically while the dog might perform another task without much enthusiasm or haste. Once you begin to get a grasp on this concept and you couple it with a working knowledge of what drives your dog, then your training becomes more efficient and enjoyable for you and the dog. You create a dog that is a problem solver. A dog with the mentality that, instead of doing things because it has to, its doing it so that he can get paid (ie, it wants to). A dog that is trying to get paid by doing what you want it to. In other words, you two want the same thing.

That dog is called the Operant Dog.

41 views1 comment

1 commentaire

Membre inconnu
18 mai

Love the show and enjoy reading the post keep up the good work

bottom of page