Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Operant Conditioning

Many clients ask me for training advice and help with specific behavioral issues. It's tough sometimes to give them a short answer! Changing behavior can be very challenging out in the world with all of its complications and conditions and distractions. And there are so many options! But when you boil it down to its most basic level -- at the level of operant conditioning, as described by B.F. Skinner -- there are five types of stimulus that can be used to change behavior. So here's the crash course:
Positive reinforcement: a desired behavior is encouraged through the use of a reward.
     ie. giving a dog a cookie for sitting on command
Negative reinforcement: a desired behavior is encouraged by removing something unpleasant.
     ie. letting up the tension in the leash when the dog sits
Positive punishment: an undesired behavior is discouraged through use of an aversive.
     ie. saying "No!" to a dog who has just jumped on someone
Negative punishment: an undesired behavior is discouraged by taking something good away.
     ie. taking away the dog's toy because he is starting to destroy it
Extinction: an undesired behavior stops because it produces no result
     ie. a dog is completely ignored while he is jumping - finding no reaction, he moves on to other behaviors
It sometimes seems that there are as many methods of dog training as there are dog trainers, but here are some key things to keep in mind while working with your own dog:
- You cannot change the past. You must always start from where you are today. And from here you can go in any direction you like. It doesn't matter where you've been or how fast you're moving -- just remember to enjoy the scenery.
- Your ultimate goal is to create a positive relationship with your dog, based on mutual respect. Be kind, patient, and curious. A sense of humor helps, too.
- Good trainers need excellent timing! Dogs don't hold onto the past, so if you wait too long, they won't understand what they're being rewarded or punished for. We're talking on the order of seconds here, not minutes and certainly not hours.
- A good reinforcer is specific to the animal you're working with. Take the opportunity of training to find out what your dog really likes to work for. Is it food? What kind? Is it a toy? A belly rub? They are all unique, so experiment!
- Never try to train your dog when you are upset, angry, frustrated, or otherwise unhappy. Training should always come from a loving, rational state of mind. Plan ahead -- don't react and overreact.
- Remember free will! When you get down to it, it's really impossible to force any creature's compliance. All you can do is make desirable behavior more rewarding and undesirable behavior less rewarding. So make sure you really appreciate every good behavior your dog gives you. He didn't have to!
&nbsp&nbsp For some detailed (and really technical) info on operant conditioning, check out:
   For a much more in depth discussion of operant conditioning specific to animal training, head over to:
   And for info on the wonderful world of clicker training, visit:
There's a whole world of information out there, so have fun learning what you and your dog can accomplish together. (Hey, and when you've gotten the hang of it, you might want to try training your cat and your bird and your fish, too!)