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Operant Conditioning in Dogs


If you are familiar with Classical Conditioning or the Pavlovian Conditioning, then most probably Operant Conditioning is not an alien phenomenon to you. Operant Conditioning is a theory that believes on the idea that behaviors that are reinforced will continue, while behaviors that are punished will extinguish.

What is Operant Conditioning?

Operant Conditioning, which means modifying behavior by the use of reinforcement given after a desired response, was coined by B.F. Skinner, who is regarded as the Father of Operant Conditioning. His work was inspired by Thorndike's the Law of Effect, which states that  any behavior followed by desirable consequences is likely to be repeated, while behavior followed by undesirable consequences is likely to be ceased.

From this, B.F. Skinner’s work introduced the use of reinforcement in operant conditioning: any behavior reinforced is likely to be strengthened and repeated, while behavior not reinforced (or punished) is likely to weaken and extinguish. In his theory, Skinner introduced three major components: neutral operations, reinforcements, and punishments.

  1. Neutral operations are responses or consequences that neither increase nor decrease the likelihood of behavior being repeated.
  2. Reinforcements are responses or consequences that increase the likelihood of behavior being repeated.
  3. Punishments are responses or consequences that decrease the likelihood of behavior being repeated.

Reinforcements and punishments can also be “positive” or “negative” Positive reinforcers are desirable responses or consequences given, while negative reinforcers are characterized by the removal of undesirable responses or consequences. The same concepts of being given and being removed, for positive and negative respectively, are applicable for punishers.

The main difference of operant conditioning from classical conditioning is that the responses or consequences that follow the behavior is voluntary.

Operant Conditioning at Work

Most, if not all, dog training modules and techniques are based on operant conditioning. Looking closely at dog trainings, they make use of reinforcements in modifying dog behavior, in performing good behaviors and in stopping bad behaviors. Operant conditioning is also used in teaching new tricks. Below are specific examples:

  1. Positive reinforcement: When potty-training a dog, a treat or anything desirable for your dog is given, to increase the likelihood that the dog will pee and poop at the right places.
  2. Positive punishment: Also when potty-training, giving a gently spank on the hands of the dog when it pees or poos at the wrong places, is positive punishment; this is trying to correct bad behavior.
  3. Negative reinforcement: When training to sit, removing the dog from its leash or anything that is unpleasant, reinforces that behavior and increases the probability of sitting down when told to ‘sit.’
  4. Negative punishment: Also when training to sit, take away toys from the dog every time it does not sit down when told to ‘sit.’

The Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, along with other famous dog trainers, personally likes and uses operant conditioning in dog training. As experts in the field of dog training, they mastered the timing, frequency, and the schedules of reinforcements, most effective to training dogs. Studies show that a variable schedule of reinforcement, rewarding every time or every other time, is more effective than a fixed schedule of reinforcement, rewarding intermittently. This is because the dog may get habituated and no longer respond in the future.

Operant conditioning is based on several years of research by professionals. It gives foundation and framework to shape or modify behaviors of dogs. Positive reinforcements are most widely used by dog owners all over the world and are tested proven to be effective, far more than punishment as operant conditioning methods. They are far less risky and safer, while at the same time, very effective in modifying the dog’s behavior.