Have you ever wondered how really good dog trainers come up with the techniques they use to solve behaviour problems in dogs such as excessive barking, destructive chewing, toileting in the house and jumping up on visitors? Or how top dog trainers come up with ways to train dogs in top obedience and working competitions? Apart from a few “naturals”, most really good dog trainers have a very good understanding of how dogs learn. They have adapted theory from the world of behavioural science and turned that knowledge into real-life practical skills for training dogs. This article explains in plain English some of the science and theory behind dog training, these really are secrets of the dog training professionals!
Operant Conditioning is the term that scientists use to describe what dog trainers call “training with consequences”. That is, any training that involves a consequence that either reinforces or punishes behavior. There are 4 possible consequence types used in Operant Conditioning, and 1 non-consequence. These are:
1. Positive Reinforcement: when we give a reward and the behaviour increases or is maintained as a result, we call this positive reinforcement (+R). e.g dog sits when asked, we give a treat. Dog learns to sit when asked in future.
2. Negative Reinforcement: when we take something unpleasant away and the behaviour increases or is maintained as a result, we call this negative reinforcement (-R). e.g we ask dog to sit, pulling up on collar, dog sits, we release pressure from the collar. Dog learns to sit when asked in future.
3. Positive Punishment: when we do something unpleasant and the behaviour is decreased or eliminated as a result, we call this positive punishment (+P). e.g dog goes to investigate kitchen bench for food, we make a sharp noise. Dog learns not to investigate kitchen benches for food in future.
4. Negative Punishment: when we take away something the dog wants or enjoys and the behaviour is decreased or eliminated as a result, we call this negative punishment (-P). e.g dog plays too roughly with another more timid dog, we leash rough dog and remove the opportunity to play. Dog learns not to play too roughly in future.
5. Extinction: when behaviour is no longer reinforced and it eventually goes away, we call this extinction. e.g dog is used to being allowed outside when he whines at the door, but is suddenly no longer allowed out when he whines. Dog learns not to whine at the door. Extinction sometimes makes the target behaviour worse before it gets better, sometimes significantly. This is known as an “extinction burst” and is usually a sign that the behaviour is about to diminish rapidly. In the current example, the dog might whine more often, more loudly, and for longer periods before learning that whining doesn’t work for him any more.
Let’s examine the terms more closely. Apart from extinction, you will notice four words that can be used in four different combinations. These are “positive”, “negative”, “reinforcement” and “punishment” and they are technical terms that scientists use when discussing Operant Conditioning.
“Positive” means to add something. We add the reward, or add the punisher. By contrast, “Negative” means to take something away. We take away the reward, or take away the unpleasant stimulus.
“Reinforcement” is when we increase or maintain behaviour. The behaviour happens more often, more intensely, for longer periods, or it continues to happen without reducing in frequency, intensity or duration. By contrast, “Punishment” is when we decrease or eliminate behaviour using consequence. We reduce the frequency, intensity or duration of the behaviour.
A common mistake is to assume that we have reinforced or punished behaviour when in fact in future we discover that the behaviour has not actually been changed! Many dog trainers believe that praise is an effective reinforcer. It may be, for some dogs in some circumstances. The truth is we don’t know unless we see the behaviour that earned the praise increase or keep occurring in the future. The same applies to punishment. Yelling at a dog might stop it from going through your rubbish bin while you are there, but does it stop your dog going through the rubbish bin while you’re not there? Probably not. A more effective approach is to use a more secure rubbish bin, or put the rubbish bin in a place which is inaccessible to the dog.