(910) 939-8826 TheMatsonPack@gmail.com

*This page contains affiliate links. when you click on these links and make a purchase through the site, we will gain a commission in return at no additional cost to you. The companies that we affiliate with are companies that we use, trust, and highly recommend. We appreciate any purchases you make using our affiliate links.*

Operant Conditioning

One of the most important things to understand about your dog is how they learn about their environment. From the moment puppies are born, they begin to learn about everything that is around them, starting by learning how to use their sense of smell to find their mother’s milk.

The way that dogs learn is very similar to how we as humans learn about our environment when we are just young children. In fact, the way dogs learn is the same as every other living creature learns.

The term that is used by psychologists is called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is made up of four parts, positive punishment, positive reinforcement, negative punishment, and negative reinforcement.

Try not to get wrapped up around those names quite yet as I will break down the structure of each one later.

“The words negative and positive need to be looked at like a math equation, you either are adding or subtracting something.”

First, when looking at each quadrant of operant conditioning, they are broken up into two segments using a combination of the following four words, positive, negative, punishment, and reinforcement.

The first idea to take away is that these words are neither a good or bad thing.  Many people see negative punishment and think “that must be a really bad punishment,” but rather, these words simply describe a process. The words negative and positive need to be looked at like a math equation, you either are adding or subtracting something.

The words punishment or reinforcement describes the thing that is being added or subtracted. If the thing being added is likely to discourage a certain behavior then it is considered a punishment.  If it will encourage a behavior, then it would be reinforcement.  

I will be breaking down each one of these in more detail and provide a few examples for each one.

Positive punishment belongs in the first quadrant of operant conditioning.  An easy example for me to illustrate its use is with fire ants.

Dogs naturally like to dig holes, but when a dog digs a hole in a fire ant hill and gets bitten then he will change his behavior and be less likely to dig in that same spot again.

This is an example of positive punishment; something is being added, in the aforementioned case, the bite from the ant, which discourages the behavior of digging in that specific location. 

Dogs are faced with positive punishment daily from a variety of environmental factors whether we know it or not, they then draw conclusions in their mind to help them avoid that punishment from happening in the future.

Another example is a dog who accidentally gets hit by a fast closing door. The dog then draws the conclusion that walking by the door creates positive punishment and then begins to avoid standing near the door when it opens.

“Positive reinforcement is the opposite of positive punishment.”

Positive punishment does not stop at pain receptors however; some very scared and timid dogs will shiver when people raise their voice at them or may even be fearful of a microwave beep going off. This is not typically the case, but it shows that each dog views positive punishment differently.

Positive reinforcement is the opposite of positive punishment.  It is anything that gets added that the dog likes, and so they are encouraged to do it again. In dog training, treats and rewards are used to fill this quadrant; however, positive reinforcement can be detrimental in certain cases.

An example would be a rowdy dog that enjoys jumping on people.

Each time the dog jumps up on people, they make a loud noise and engage with the dog.

The dog enjoys this interaction and then is more likely to do it in the future. Many problems that dog owners face are due to the owners giving their dogs positive reinforcement for their behaviors.

Often, owners do not even realize they are doing this. There are some behaviors in dogs where the behavior alone is a reward, such as a dog that is constantly barking and does so for the enjoyment of barking.

This is known as internal reinforcement.

Therefore, sometimes ignoring a bad behavior will only make it worse, as the dog is still being rewarded via positive reinforcement.

Negative punishment is any time a certain object is taken away from the dog to discourage a behavior. A dog who drops his bone next to another dog, who then snatches it up, will be less likely to drop its bone near other dogs for fear that it will be taken away.

Negative punishment can also extend to withholding a reward from a dog until they exhibit the desired behavior.

“For some very high strung and energetic dogs, this can be a very stressful and frustrating form of punishment.”

An example would be of an extremely ball-driven dog that loves plying fetch, if you ask the dog to lay down, and he sits, then the ball does not get released.

The dog is then being punished the entire time until the reward is given for doing the correct behavior of laying down. For some very high strung and energetic dogs, this can be a very stressful and frustrating form of punishment.  

Negative reinforcement is a useful tool that many people do not utilize to its full potential.  It is also a crutch that affects many fearful dogs, keeping them from progressing out of that fear.

An example is a dog who is afraid of thunder and lighting. They will often try to run and hide somewhere in the house, most likely under a table or bed, in order to hide away from the noise and lights.

When the dog gets under the bed, the lights are no longer visible, and the noise is dimmed slightly. The dog is subtracting the scary noises by retreating under the bed, which is reinforcing the dog’s reaction.

The same goes for dogs that are fearful of strangers and then hide behind their owners.

The worst example of negative reinforcement is a reactive dog who fearfully barks at other dogs. Typically, other owners and dogs will back off from the barking dog, this then rewards the dog for barking.

The dog is being reinforced by negating the negative stimuli. This can be greatly detrimental to dogs who are fearful as it only encourages them to stay in that fear mindset and never get out of their shells.

Whether you know it or not, every second of every day you are doing one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning with each interaction you make with your dog.

Understanding these four quadrants can help you better understand your dog and why it does what it does.  It can also help you get your dog over certain behavior problems that you have been unintentionally reinforcing.

Understanding these four quadrants and when you can use each one will ultimately help you build a better relationship with your dog.  

Share This

Share this post with your friends!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!