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Train Like Skinner: The Power of Operant Conditioning

"Also known as trial-and-error learning, this is when dogs learn to associate their behavior with its consequences. Dogs increase the frequency of behaviors with pleasant consequences and decrease the frequency of those with unpleasant consequences" - American Kennel Club

Operant conditioning is a type of learning that occurs when the consequences of a behavior influence the likelihood of that behavior being repeated in the future.

It involves modifying behavior through reinforcement (increasing the likelihood of a behavior) or punishment (decreasing the likelihood of a behavior), and is based on the principles of reinforcement and punishment first outlined by psychologist B.F. Skinner.

In operant conditioning, the animal learns to associate a particular behavior with a consequence, either positive or negative, which then affects their future behavior.

Let's review the four quadrants of learning theory

Reinforcement - Increases Behavior

Punishment - Decreases Behavior

Positive (Add)

Positive Reinforcement - ADDING something the dog likes to increase behavior

Positive Punishment - ADDING something the dog dislikes to decrease behavior

Negative (Subtract)

Negative Reinforcement - REMOVING something

the dog dislikes

to increase behavior

Negative Punishment - REMOVING something

the dog likes

to decrease behavior

How do we apply operant conditioning in dog training?

Dogs can learn to operate on their environment. They learn that they can make things happen for their benefit (or detriment). Let's review B.F. Skinner's four quadrants and think about some examples of how each quadrant is applied differently in dog training.

  • Positive reinforcement: rewarding a dog with treats, praise, or play for performing a desired behavior, such as sitting or staying.

  • Negative reinforcement: removing an aversive stimulus, such as a shock collar, when the dog performs a desired behavior, such as coming when called.

  • Positive punishment: using an aversive stimulus, such as a loud noise or a spray of water, to discourage a dog from performing an undesired behavior, such as jumping on people.

  • Negative punishment: removing a desirable stimulus, such as attention or a toy, when the dog performs an undesired behavior, such as chewing on furniture.

These are just a few examples, and there are many other ways to use operant conditioning in dog training, depending on the specific behaviors you are trying to teach or discourage. It's important to use operant conditioning methods in a humane and ethical way, and to tailor your training approach to your dog's individual temperament and learning style.


About the Author: Ashley Diaz is a dedicated pet owner and animal lover with over 10 years of experience providing professional pet care. With certifications in applied animal behavior & training, she shares her knowledge and insights on pet ownership, behavior, and welfare in her blog. Outside of her work with animals, Ashley enjoys spending time with her family, hiking, practicing yoga and playing the piano.


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