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A Beginner's Guide to Operant Conditioning


One of the things we are starting to see more and more of in the dog training community, whether professional trainers, or hobbyists, or even pet owners, are the words "Operant Conditioning." But what is operant conditioning? How and why does it work? Where does it come from?

This article will help lay a foundation of knowledge of what operant conditioning is. Unfortunately, operant conditioning is a complex field. If we discuss things too simply, we open the door to debate about the meaning and use of various terms. If we discuss the principles too in-depth, we lose the audience that is just learning these time-proven procedures. Hopefully, this article will strike a balance between the two extremes.

Before we get started, let's get some definitions out of the way:

OC: Shorthand for Operant Conditioning

Behavior: Something the dog does (sit, jump up, walk on a loose lead)

Reinforcement: The application or removal of a stimulus to INCREASE the occurrence of a behavior.

Punishment: The application or removal of a stimulus to DECREASE the occurrence of a behavior.

Reinforcer: A neato-torpedo, scientific word for a type of reward.

Aversive: Generally defined as something the dog will work to avoid.


The Four Quadrants of OC

Operant conditioning is a theory of learning that generally follows "Thorndyke's Law of Effect." This law states that behaviors that are reinforced will become more likely to occur, and behaviors that are not reinforced will become less likely to occur.

B.F. Skinner coined the term "Operant Conditioning" to refer to his theory of how animals learn. In the broadest sense, Skinner defined four ways to change behavior: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, negative punishment. Here is a simple and brief explanation of each:

Positive Reinforcement: This is when something is added to the environment after a behavior that will increase the occurrence of a behavior. Examples of this are giving a dog food after it sits or telling a young child how proud you are of him/her when the child says thank you.

Negative Reinforcement: Negative reinforcement is when an aversive is applied, and then eliminated to increase the occurrence of a behavior. There are two types of negative reinforcement.

The first is avoidance. An example of this would be a child cleaning her room to avoid a scolding. A dog walks next to you to avoid a harsh leash correction. In avoidance, it is the threat of the aversive that is removed.

The second is escape. This is when the aversive is continually applied and the aversive is eliminated when the animal does the behavior you want. An example of this would be teaching a dog to sit by pulling up on a leash, when the dog sits, the leash tension is relaxed. Parent yells at a child until the child starts cleaning his room, then the yelling stops. A dog is shocked with a collar until it starts a return to the handler, then the collar is turned off.

Positive Punishment: This is when an aversive is introduced during or immediately after a behavior to reduce the occurrence of the behavior. Child misbehaves; he is spanked. Rat touches a lighted disc; it is shocked.

Negative Punishment: This is when something rewarding is taken away to reduce the occurrence of a behavior. An example would be a child whines, so you take his dessert.

These principles can be used in every possible combination to get, maintain, or eliminate behaviors. For example, you can combine positive reinforcement and negative punishment: Dog walks on a loose lead, you reward with food, dog starts to pull, you stop and hold the leash so the dog can't move forward (what it wants to do). Some combinations are more humane than others, and some combinations can be extremely distressing to the animal.

In addition to the four main quadrants of Operant Conditioning, Skinner defined principles which expand the basic concepts. One of these principles is called Extinction. Put simply, extinction says if a behavior is not reinforced, even after it has been conditioned. it will gradually eliminate or change. You can combine extinction with one of the four quadrants -- for example, positive reinforcement: Dog barks, you ignore, dog stops barking, you reward with food.

Extinction alone often won't work if the behavior you are trying to extinct is self-rewarding. An example would be a dog chewing a bone. You can ignore the dog chewing the bone all you want, but because the act of chewing the bone is, in and of itself, rewarding to the dog, just trying to extinct the behavior alone will not really affect the behavior.



It's easy to see how important reinforcers are in Operant Conditioning. We all work for reinforcers every day. I am writing this article partially because of reinforcers. There is a mailing list, I give input, people reply positively to my input, my input on the list increases. You can see how well it works. Dogs are no different.

Skinner defined two types of reinforcers: primary reinforcers and conditioned reinforcers:

Primary reinforcers are something an animal instinctively and inherently finds rewarding. No learning is necessary for these reinforcers to increase the likelihood of a behavior. In dogs, primary reinforcers include food, water, procreation, and sometimes certain predatory behaviors.

Conditioned reinforcers are things that are paired with a primary reinforcer to the point where they have the same meaning as the primary reinforcer. This is done through a process known and classical or respondent conditioning.

In humans, money is a conditioned reinforcer. Money itself is simply a piece of paper -- not intrinsically rewarding. But because it has been paired with primary reinforcers such as food, clothing, and shelter, money has become a conditioned reinforcer.

Often, for pet dog owners, "good dog" or "good girl/boy" has become a conditioned reinforcer because it has been paired often with the giving of a treat. In clicker training, the clicker is a conditioned reinforcer, because it has been paired with a primary reinforcer to the point that the click means the same thing to the dog that the presentation of food would. Conditioned reinforcers are good to use in animal training because they often get a reward/reinforcement to the animal faster than you would be able to with the primary reinforcer.

The most important thing you can remember about reinforcers though, is that the animal decides what is reinforcing, not the trainer/owner! Some dogs will work only for particular types of food; others will work for tennis balls. The trainer's job is to find what the dog finds reinforcing and use it.


The Value of Reinforcers

Something else very important to remember is that primary and conditioned reinforcers can and do have different values to a dog, even if in the same category. I have a nine-year-old Rottweiler that will work for boiled peanut shells, celery… just about anything that a human puts in its mouth. But she likes certain foods better than others. She'll play tug-of-war with anything, but her favorite toy to play with is her squeaky, fur-hedgehog.

Make a list of things that you think your dog finds reinforcing, then organize that list in a hierarchical order. What is the MOST reinforcing, next, and so on. Use this knowledge to manipulate your dog's desires and drives in training, and use it to give yourself an edge when you need it.

For example, crackers might be a low-value reinforcer and steak a high-value reinforcer. When you train at home, you can use crackers, because crackers are the most reinforcing thing in the environment. To give yourself an extra edge, throw in an occasional high-value reward. As you add distractions, you'll have to increase the value of the commonly used reinforcer. In an obedience class, you might have to use steak to keep your dog's attention.


OC and Clicker Training

What does all this have to do with clicker training? Well, these scientific theories are the foundation for clicker training. Remember a clicker is nothing more than a conditioned reinforcer. With an in-depth understanding of operant conditioning, how and why it works, we can become better trainers.

While there are a lot of different views about "what" clicker training is, Karen Pryor, the modern impetus behind the movement has defined "clicker training" as the use of positive reinforcement (R+) and negative punishment (P-) in the development and fluency of behaviors.

Well, there you have it. If you would like a little more in-depth information regarding Operant and Classical Conditioning, I recommend reading "How Dogs Learn" by Burch and Bailey. Look at the articles on the ClickerSolutions Web site for information regarding clicker training.

Good Luck In Training

Doug Johnson
copyright 1999 Doug Johnson


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