Making sense of operant conditioning

For those who read our article Please help.

When it comes to dog training, dog trainers use what is called Operant conditioning. While many people become confused when they hear the word operant conditioning, the principles and categories are actually pretty straightforward.

Operant conditioning, or trial and error learning, is simply a description of how animals learn, a description that requires a few important definitions.  I have found that the best and most easily understood description regarding the 4 quadrants of operant conditioning is by Dr. Sophia Yin from her book How to behave so your dog behaves.

from How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves by Dr. Sophia Yin)

Reinforcement vs Punishment

The first two definitions to know are reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. For instance, if you call your dog and then give him a treat when he comes, he will be more likely to come the next time you call. Thus, by giving him a treat for coming, you reinforce his behavior of coming when called.

Punishment is anything that decreases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. For instance, if you call your dog and then yell and scream at him when he comes, he will be less likely to come the next time you call. Thus, by yelling at him, you punish his behavior of coming when called. This second scenario may seem an unlikely event, but it happens to people every day. When owners call Rover five or six times before he comes running and then yell at him for taking his time, they are really punishing him for coming when called.

Positive vs Negative

The second set of terms to know are positive and negative. Positive and negative do not mean good or bad; instead, think of them as a plus sign or a minus sign. Positive means that you’re adding something, and negative means you’re subtracting something. Positive and negative can be applied to both reinforcement and punishment.

Combining the Terms

Now we can combine the terms into four categories—positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. Here’s what the categories are:

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Reinforcement can be positive or negative. In either case, we are increasing the likelihood the behavior will occur again. Positive reinforcement means that by adding something the animal wants, you increase the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. For instance, if you teach your dog to come to you by giving him a treat when he comes, you’re using positive reinforcement. By giving him food, which he likes, you’re increasing the likelihood that he will come to you the next time too.

Negative reinforcement means that by removing something aversive, something Fido dislikes, you increase the likelihood the behavior will occur again. For example, you decide to teach Fido to come by putting him on a leash and choke chain. You pull on his leash until he takes a step forward, and as soon as he comes forward, you release the pressure. That is using negative reinforcement. By removing the pressure as soon as he starts coming, you increase the likelihood that he will come the next time in order to avoid the pulling.

Another trick for remembering negative reinforcement is to think of it as nagging. When I was a child and my mother wanted me clean my room, she often had to keep telling me until I cleaned it. I would finally clean my room in order to avoid her aversive nagging.

Positive and Negative Punishment

Punishment can be positive or negative, too. In either case we are decreasing the likelihood the behavior will occur again.  It seems odd, but when we talk about punishment, we’re usually talking about positive punishment. Positive punishment just means that by adding something aversive, we decrease the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. For instance, your dog raids the garbage can when you’re not looking, so you booby-trap the garbage with mousetraps. The next time Spot sticks his nose in search of a snack, he gets a mousetrap surprise, which scares him. This booby trap decreases the likelihood that he will raid the garbage can again; thus, it is positive punishment.

Negative punishment means that by removing something the animal wants, we decrease the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. For instance, when dogs greet us by jumping, their goal is to get our attention. If we remove our attention every time Spot jumps by holding perfectly still and even looking away, eventually he will stop jumping. By removing the attention that he wanted, we decrease the likelihood that he will jump again.

 

Cindy Quigley is a Canine life cycle coach, and pet stylist. She is the owner of  Supermutts.com and author of Puppy Montessori. She has 23 years’ experience professionally working with dogs.  She has worked in grooming shops, boarding facilities and veterinary hospitals, all of which taught her how to read canine body language and understand dog handling. As boarding and daycare facility owners together with her husband Kenneth she has cared for thousands of dogs and has thousands of hours observing, studying and modifying canine behavior. 

 

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