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The Main Principles of Operant Conditioning for Dogs

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Pooch Pointers

Positive reinforcement establishes “good” behaviors faster, and creates a love of learning and a great relationship. Positive reinforcement doesn't create confusion and stress or any bad behaviors—unless you reinforce “bad” behaviors.

Canine Caveats

You really can't get rid of Pavlov. You positively punish your dog by shocking him with an electric shock collar when he barks in his crate to get him to stop the barking. He now has the association that being in his crate is a horrible thing.

Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment are the main terms of operant conditioning, and these can be confusing at first.

In science, the terms “positive” and “negative” relate only to adding something or taking something away. The terms “reinforcement” and “punishment” relate to behavior increasing or decreasing:

  • Positive Reinforcement (+R)  Anything good that is added (positive) that increases (reinforces) behavior.

  • Positive Punishment (+P)  Anything bad that is added (positive) that decreases (punishes) behavior.

  • Negative Reinforcement (-R)  Anything bad that is taken away (negative) to increase (reinforce) behavior.

  • Negative Punishment (-P)  Anything good that is taken away (negative) to decrease (punishes) behavior.

Now that you're thoroughly confused, the following sections give you some examples to help you gain a better understanding of these concepts.

Positive Reinforcement

Here are some examples: your dog sits when you ask her to and you give her a treat; her sitting behavior will increase in the future. You give your dog treats for walking on a loose leash, and her loose-leash-walking behavior will increase. You reinforce your dog for not rearranging the furniture, and “lying down calmly” behaviors will increase. You reinforce your dog for having “four on the floor,” and her staying-on-the-floor behavior will increase.

Positive Punishment

Doggie Data

Historically, we humans are controlled primarily through negative reinforcement. We're punished when we haven't done what is reinforcing to those who are in “charge” (such as parents, employers, or trainers). Positive reinforcement has, unfortunately, been less often used, but it is more effective than negative reinforcement and has many fewer unwanted by-products.

For example, a student is punished when he doesn't study. He may study after that, but he may also stay away from school (truancy), vandalize school property, attack teachers, or do nothing. With positive reinforcement, the student would have been reinforced for studying in the first place, and most likely would have learned to love learning.

Don't be confused by this—positive means something added, not necessarily something nice. Your dog is barking and you turn on the citronella collar. His barking may decrease. Your dog urinates on the rug and you hit him with a newspaper, and his eliminating on the rug behavior may decrease. You touch a hot stove and burn your hand. You will not touch a hot stove again.

Please don't get the wrong idea here—I am not advocating positive punishment. In fact, I highly recommend that you stay away from it. There are too many toxic side effects. The timing has to be perfect (if you punish the dog for soiling the house after she comes to you, you have just punished her for coming to you), and punishment is associated with the person doling it out.

Oftentimes, you only suppress behavior using positive punishment—sure, the dog stops urinating on the carpet, but now does it behind the couch. For some dogs, barking is so self-reinforcing (they like to bark) that they'll bark regardless of what you do, or bark only when the shock or citronella collar is off. The punishment has to outweigh the rewards and the motivation for it to be effective.

Depending on the motivation, some people (and dogs) will go to great lengths to succeed over adversity, continuing to practice their success—seeking behaviors regardless of punishment or hardships.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Positive Dog Training é 2005 by Pamela Dennison. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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