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Operant Conditioning

September 26, 2016

Operant conditioning is a form a learning that teaches the subject desired behaviors through consequences. This is a psychological foundation that dog trainers use as the underlying framework for our techniques. 


There are four important quadrants to operant conditioning, and those four are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. Using operant conditioning style training with your dog will teach him or her that their behavior has an effect on their environment. Meaning the dog believes that it is their action that can make rewards or corrections happen to them.


Before we move forward, I would like to explain how to remember the four quadrants and what they mean. The first thing to keep in mind is that the term “positive” means to add to the equation, so positive reinforcement means we are adding a physical reward like a treat, toy or petting. On the contrast, negative means we are taking away. So negative reinforcement means you are removing the reward; such as not giving the dog a treat until the dog does the behavior correctly. Positive punishment means to add a physical correction. Negative punishment means to turn on the pressure once the desired result or behavior is reached. 


We will start with the easiest of the four to understand, and that's positive reinforcement. This is what most people use with their dogs. The owner will give the dog some form of a physical reward when the dog performs the desired behavior, so for example, when the dog sits—the owner will give the dog a treat for sitting, teaching the dog that sitting is a good thing. An easy way to look at it is that we use positive reinforcement for any behavior we would like the dog to repeat. 


The next one that most people use and understand is negative punishment. As I mentioned before, all negative reinforcement means in dog training is withholding a reward. This should be delivered when the dog makes a mistake or isn't performing the correct behavior, and as a result, the human will not give the dog the treat until the dog shows the desired behavior. For example, you're teaching your dog a sit, and the dog keeps trying to jump up to get the treat out of your hand, so you withhold the reward from the dog. However, the second the dog sits, you immediately pay the dog, and the dog then realizes that all he had to do for the treat was to sit. 


The next is positive punishment which is a process of giving the dog a physical correction with a training collar to stop undesirable behavioral traits. If I have a dog, and that dog’s favorite thing in the world is to chase cars, the only way I can stop that dog from performing the behavior is by correcting it out of the dog’s repertoire. Remember everything is based on motivation. Whatever the dog is most motivated to do, that's what the dog will do. So to not chase the car, the dog must be more motivated not to receive a correction than the dog is to chase the vehicle. 


Last is negative reinforcement. We use this in dog training by implementing a technique called leash pressure work. Every dog has what's called "classical opposition reflex.” Meaning, when you pull one direction on the leash, the dog pulls the opposite. In this exercise, we teach the dog to go with the pressure on the leash by using negative reinforcement. So by not turning off the pressure until the dog complies teaches the dog always to go with the pressure of the leash, and we can then use this to teach desired behaviors and develop reliability and obedience. 


By understanding and utilizing operant condition with your dog, you can train your dog to become that well-behaved companion you’ve always wanted.


Author: Nathan Schoemer

Editor: Cyrus Kirkpatrick



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