Operant Conditioning Explained

Feb 26, 2017 |

Since dog trainers and behaviourists will attempt to explain the correctness of their training methods by using the terms “operant conditioning,” especially when they oppose the methods used by others, I have included this information. Operant conditioning is rooted in human psychology and was named by psychologist B.F. Skinner.

Operant conditioning is the modification of behaviour brought about over time by the consequences of said behaviour. Distinguished from Pavlovian conditioning, operant conditioning focuses on voluntary behaviour explained by its consequences, while Pavlovian conditioning focuses on involuntary behaviour triggered by antecedents (something that happens or exists before something else.)

According to Skinner “The innate behaviour studied by ethnologists is shaped and maintained by its contribution to the survival of the individual and species.  Operant behaviour is shaped and maintained by its consequences for the individual.”

There are four situations of operant conditioning. Here the terms “positive” and “negative” are not used in their popular sense.  Rather, “positive” refers to addition (+) and “negative” refers to subtraction (-). Also, reinforcers always strengthen behaviour; that is what “reinforced” means. Punishment is used to suppress behaviour.

1. Positive Reinforcement takes place when a behaviour (response) is followed by an appetitive (pleasant) response. Most dog trainers/behaviourist takes this literally to mean only food. I have supplied the definition of appetitive below.

ap·pe·tite  (plural ap·pe·tites)noun Definitions:1. desire for food: a natural desire for food 2. strong desire: a strong desire or craving for something[14th century. Via French < Latin appetitus “desire” < appetere “seek after” < petere “seek” (see petition)]ap·pe·ti·tive adj

As you can see it can mean anything that is strongly desired; a toy, love and affection, a trip to the Bahamas – name your desire.

2. Negative Reinforcement takes place when a behaviour is followed by the removal of an adverse (unpleasant) stimulus thereby increasing that behaviour – a negative “reinforcer” reinforces when it is withdrawn.  Negative reinforcement is not punishment. An example would be the Skinner box experiment where a loud noise continued inside the rats’ cage until a lever was pressed which caused the noise to cease.

3. Positive Punishment takes place when a behaviour (response) is followed by an adverse (unpleasant) stimulus such as a shock or loud noise which results in a decrease in that behaviour.

4. Negative Punishment takes place when a behaviour (response) is followed by the removal of a appetitive stimulus, such as taking away a toy, which results in a decrease in that behaviour.

Skinners experiments did not involve reflexive, impulsive or instinctive behaviours, as he believed these behaviours existed outside the parameters of operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning Explained

Food training for dogs really came about because of research being done in the early part of the 20th century involving digestion which ended up becoming a study by Ivan Pavlov regarding Classical Conditioning. I am sure you have heard the saying “bell rings, dog salivates”. Pavlov’s experiment proved that all animals could be trained or conditioned to expect a consequence on the results of previous experience.

Pavlov began pairing the sound of a bell with giving dogs meat powder. He found that even when the meat powder was not presented, the dog would eventually salivate after hearing the bell. Since the meat powder naturally results in salivation, these two variables are called the unconditioned stimulus and the conditioned stimulus. The bell and the salivation are not naturally occurring (the dog was conditioned to respond to the bell.) Therefore, the bell is considered the conditioned stimulus and the salivation in response to the bell is the conditioned response.

As I see it, because of the strong instinctual “drive” present in dogs, there are limitations to applying only Operant Conditioning theories or only Classical Conditioning theories with regard to dog training.

A drive is an internal mechanism that pushes the dog into taking action. All dogs have certain basic drives. The only real difference among dogs is a matter of degree.  The basic drives are: Prey, Rank/Pack, Defence (Fight)/ Defence (Flight) All are deeply situated in the natural survival instincts of the canine. There are other very strong drives that can be detected and developed for service dog work.

According to the laws of operant conditioning, “any behaviour that is consistently rewarded every single time will be produced only intermittently and will therefore not be reliable.” Using a dog’s “drive” along with operant conditioning can produce much more consistent results.

Allowing for these instincts enhances the learning process and using them can strengthen the bond between owner and dog. Give your dog a job, activity or purpose every day. Make time for play, rest and work and your dog will thrive.

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