Classical and Operant Conditioning: The Basics

Dog Training Approach

Training dogs can be thoroughly rewarding to both dog and owner. Many think of it as teaching a dog a set of obedience commands or “tricks”, but it goes way beyond that.

Dogs are sharing our homes more now than ever. Being more informed on how dogs learn will help contribute to a harmonious and happy home life.

With this knowledge comes a greater understanding of how best to teach a dog to achieve the best possible results with the least amount of resistance. Many rescue centres and shelter report a high number of dogs being brought to then due to behavioural problems.

However, they find most respond positively to training and are well-behaved, obedient pets. 

How Not To Train

Many dog trainers continue to promote an approach based on the dominance theory, which see training conducted using force, intimidation and sometimes pain. In my humble opinion, (and other far more reputable and experienced expert’s opinions) this method is outdated and could make behavioural problems worse.

Common punishing or confrontational techniques used to control dogs include: harsh lead corrections meant to cause discomfort; hitting or kicking the dog; applying electric shock via a collar; and applying physical force to pressure a dog into a submissive down position which forces the dog onto its back.

Plus a variety of other techniques involving shouting, threatening stares, or growls, the use of water through guns or sprays, grabbing the dog by the scruff of the neck or jowls and shaking it, and similar processes.

Dogs are not socialised wolves who are constantly striving to be the alpha dog. We now know that not even wild wolves are constantly striving to be the alpha wolf.

This was a by-product of captivity. This punishment based training will only harm the relationship between dog and owner, not strengthen it.

We have learnt that wolves become the leader of the pack when they mature, mate and produce offspring of their own. They have not battled to become the alpha of the pack, but are simply the parent of it.

By taking an approach to training that is the caring parent, the bond between dog and owner will be strong and loving. Providing praise and positive recognition for good behaviour will encourage the dog to behave in that way because they want to and not because they are being forced to.

Classical and Operant Conditioning

There are two fundamental types of learning. Learning by association which is known as classical conditioning or learning by consequences which is referred to as operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning, or responsive conditioning, is an involuntary response to stimuli. It happens without active participation – an automatic behaviour.

It is based on association. For example, when food is presented to a dog it triggers an involuntary reaction to salivate more. In this example food is the stimulus and salivating is the response.

What scientist Ivan Pavlov discovered during his early twentieth century studies, was that when introducing a new stimulus at the same time as the food, repetitively, it had the capacity to evoke the same involuntary response.

During his study, which happened to be on dogs, he noticed that saliva was being produced before the food was present. This was possibly due to the presence of the handler that fed them.

Fascinated, he decided to test this further. He needed a neutral stimulus, and choose a bell. When he rang the bell on day one, the dogs had no response to it.

Pavlov then rang the bell each time food was presented to the dogs. After repeating this several times, he rang the bell without the food being present, and the dogs started salivating.

He conditioned the dogs to react to the previously neutral stimulus, physically, in a way in which they have no control over. Classical conditioning happens on a daily basis without knowledge or effort from the dog.

When they see food, they salivate. When they see the lead, they get excited. These are not natural automatic behaviours from birth but learnt through classical conditioning.

Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning, or instrumental conditioning, is a voluntary response to stimuli. A choice is made to perform a particular behaviour more, or less, depending on what happens next.

It is based on consequences and focuses on using reinforcement or punishment to increase or reduce the behaviour. Reinforcement following the behaviour will cause the behaviour to increase.

Punishment following the behaviour will cause the behaviour to decrease. Through this process, a mental connection is formed between the behaviour and consequence.

Both reinforcement and punishment are split down into two further sub-categories. Positive and negative. It is easy to hear positive and think reward or hear negative and think punishment but it is not the case for operant conditioning.

Positive and negative here do not refer to “good” and “bad”, they are the addition of something or the removal something respectively to increase or decrease a particular behaviour.

Positive reinforcement – increases behaviour by adding something that the dog sees as pleasant, like giving a treat or praise.

Negative reinforcement – increases behaviour by removing something that was unpleasant for the dog, like a removing the leash to allow the dog to play with others.

Positive punishment – decreases behaviour by adding something the dog sees as unpleasant, like stepping onto a leash when a dog jumps up. You are adding a restriction.

Negative punishment – decreases behaviour by removing something that the dog wants, like your attention. You ignore them until they stop the undesired behaviour.

What This Teaches us Owners

Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are not confined to training classes or set times of the day. Our dogs are always learning. From us, from the environment and new experiences. By knowing how they learn we can better understand their reactions to certain stimuli.

We can encourage good behaviour and social skills, or reduce bad behaviour and undesired actions. None of which needs force, intimidation or by inflicting pain.

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