Operant Conditioning in Dogs

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. October 16, 2016
Operant Conditioning in Dogs

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Operant conditioning in dogs is a type of learning and developing of new behaviors that doesn't use the the association between stimuli and reflex behaviors that can be seen in classical conditioning.

The principles of operant conditioning were developed from 1938 onward by B. F. Skinner, who was influenced by the investigations of Ivan Pavlov, Edward L. Thorndike and Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.

This AnimalWised article will explain how to put operant conditioning into practice, and we will go over some examples so that you understand what it's all about. Keep reading!

You may also be interested in: Classical Conditioning in Dogs

Learning by operant conditioning

Operant conditioning works on the basis that the dog's spontaneous behaviors and the consequences of those actions determine how it learns. Thus, pleasant consequences tend to strengthen a behavior while unpleasant consequences tend to weaken it.

For instance, by the same learning process, children learn not to touch the stove when it's hot. When they touch the stove they burn their hand; therefore, they eventually stop touching the stove when it is hot because it has unpleasant consequences.

There are 5 points to consider in order to apply operant conditioning to dogs:

1. Reinforcement

The first point of operant conditioning consists of rewarding the dog with something that it likes -- food, toys or warm words - when it behaves as you want it to. This is known as positive reinforcement in dogs, and it's an excellent way to get the animal to understand what you are expecting from it.

  • Example of positive reinforcement: You tell your dog to sit down and it does so. You praise it and reward it with a treat.

You're telling the dog that this attitude pleases you, and the prize is a behavioral re-enforcer that will incite it to repeat this behavior. However, there is also such a thing as negative reinforcement:

  • Example of negative reinforcement: The dog is scared of other dogs, so it barks at them. When they move away, the dog stops being afraid. The dog learns that barking can make other dogs move away.
Operant Conditioning in Dogs - Learning by operant conditioning

2. Punishment in operant conditioning

Under no circumstances should you hit or yell at your dog. Punishment can consist of ending a game or taking a toy away from it; the goal is to reduce the frequency of a behavior.

  • Example of negative punishment: Your dog bites your hand when you're playing a ball game together. You end the game and leave it playing alone.

Remember that punishments are not recommended, since the dog might not understand what has happened. Some dogs can't comprehend why the toy has been taken away from them or why the game has been called to en end; they don't always draw the connection with the bite.

Punishment is inappropriate for dogs suffering from stress, illnesses or behavioral problems because it can worsen and aggravate these situations. An animal that suffers from physical or behavioral problems should be treated with love and respect, preferably by a professional, while always using positive reinforcement and ignoring the behaviors that aren't quite as pleasing. You should assess your dog's physical and mental conditions before you start using operant conditioning on your dog.

Operant Conditioning in Dogs -

3. Extinction

This refers to the reduced frequency of a learnt behavior, which happens when the behavior stops being reinforced. In other words, a behavior is finished by ending the consequences - like treats or congratulations - that used to reinforce it.

  • Example of behavior extinction: A puppy used to greet people by jumping on them, because they stroked it and played with him. It therefore learnt that this is the right way to greet people. At some point, people stopped stroking and playing with it when it jumped up. Instead, they turned away and ignored it. Over time, the dog stopped jumping up to greet people. This happened because the learnt behavior - jumping on people - stopped having positive consequences, which therefore led to the extinction of the behavior.

This is a good way of dealing with your dog's attitudes that you're not so keen on, without subjecting it to punishment or scolding. This process is ideal for dealing with an inappropriate behaviors in a dog with serious behavioral problems such as stress or anxiety.

Operant Conditioning in Dogs -

4. Stimulus control

This is the increased frequency of a behavior when presented with a particular single stimulus. Stimulus control is easily observed in dogs that have advanced training in dog obedience.

  • Example of stimulus control: When a dog is asked to lie down, it does so. It doesn't sit, it doesn't jump, it doesn't turn around - it only lies down. This occurs because the order to lie down has become the stimulus that controls the behavior. Of course, the dog also lies down on other occasions that are detached from training, such as when it is tired, because other stimuli control this behavior in other situations.

Working on its training is an excellent way to treat many dog conducts and behavioral problems. Furthermore, it also reinforces conduct between the human and the dog.

Operant Conditioning in Dogs -

If you want to read similar articles to Operant Conditioning in Dogs, we recommend you visit our Basic education category.

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