As I study for a certification test this weekend, I’ve been reading and re-reading a lot of dog behavior books. It’s all stuff I know – most of them are books I read when I was starting as a trainer many years ago – but every time I read them I find little nuggets of genius that help make me a better trainer.
Most of the time, I don’t use the technical jargon from those books with clients. It’s important they have an understanding of what we’re doing with their dog, but it’s not really vital that they know the exact scientific term for each method we’re using. However, there are a few basic ways of approaching learning with dogs that can be helpful to anyone wanting to understand a bit more about how their dog’s brain works.
The behavioral science that we use with dogs will probably be familiar to anyone who has studied psychology or learning theory. It doesn’t matter what species you’re dealing with – behavioral theory stays the same. For our purposes, two methods of learning are most important: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
Classical conditioning is pretty straightforward: you are making an association between two things. Pavlov’s dogs are the perfect example of this. His research involved dogs learning that a bell meant food was coming, and the dogs eventually began to salivate as soon as they heard the bell because they knew what would follow the sound. In training, an example of classical conditioning is when we pair a clicker with food so that when the dog hears the click he knows food will soon follow and makes a positive association with the behavior that happened with the click.
What we use much more to teach behaviors, however, is operant conditioning. In simple terms, operant conditioning means that your dog learns that their actions have consequences. In other words, their behavior influences what happens next. There are four types of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. Positive and negative do NOT mean good and bad here – they are used to talk about adding something or subtracting something. Reinforcement means the behavior the dog performed will increase in frequency; punishment means the behavior will decrease.
This is confusing for a lot of people, especially since “punishment” usually implies something bad in our minds and so does “negative,” while “positive” is generally associated with good things. This is why most trainers don’t use these exact terms with our students – most people are familiar with positive reinforcement, but the meaning of the others tends to get muddled unless you’ve spent some time studying their meaning.
Most modern trainers stick to positive reinforcement and negative punishment, for a number of reasons, but mainly because they tend to be the most effective, the most humane, are the easiest for people to use correctly and have the least number of potential side effects.
With that in mind, here are examples of each type:
Positive reinforcement: The dog does something you want them to do again, so you give them something they want. Example: The dog sits when you ask him to, so you give him a treat.
Negative punishment: The dog does something you want them to stop doing, so you take something away that they want. Example: The dog barks at you for attention, so you remove your attention by walking out of the room.
The other two types of operant conditioning are no longer used by most knowledgeable trainers unless other possibilities have been eliminated, and even then should be implemented by someone who knows what they are doing, as they have the most potential to be done incorrectly and cause more harm than good. For that reason, it is extremely rare that I will even consider minor versions of these and I am NOT recommending the examples used:
Positive punishment: The dog does something you want them to stop doing, so you add something they do not like to the situation. Example: The dog pees in the house and you yell at them.
Negative reinforcement: The dog does something you want them to repeat, so you take away something they don’t like. Example: The dog stops barking at a scary dog so the scary dog is moved out of sight.
The average dog owner does not need to remember these exact terms, but knowing the idea behind them is helpful to understanding how your dog learns.
If you have more interest in learning about some of these concepts, or other ways of viewing how our dogs think, I highly recommend these books, which are all considered staples in the dog training community, and can benefit anyone who lives their lives with dogs:
Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor
The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson
The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell
Sarah is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge and Skills Assessed. She lives in the Texas Hill Country near Austin with her two dogs, Percy, a cattle dog mix, and Clara, a lab/German Shepherd.