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The Law of Effect

A lot of dog owners understand the basics of training their dog such as the importance of timing and operant conditioning, they many even know more complex training concepts such as flooding or counter conditioning, but many owners do not have an understanding of the law of effect.

The law of effect is a simple yet very powerful game changer, and it is closely related to classical conditioning. The law of effect can be summed up as the following, good things that follow bad things make the bad things good, bad things that follow good things make the good things bad.

This principle is what makes things like counter conditioning and classical conditioning work in dog training. Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of not accounting for the law of effect while using counter conditioning and can end up making the situation worse.

Let us look at a few human examples that can help us better understand the law of effect. Every time you go to the gym you reward yourself with a fruit smoothie, the anticipation of the smoothie that follows the gym makes you enjoy the gym experience more.

“A common mistake that people make is rewarding a reactive dog while they are under threshold.”

You set your alarm to your favorite song in the hopes that it will motivate you to go to the job that you hate, rather than motivating you to like your job you begin to hate your favorite song as it means you have to go to work.

The law of effect simply shows how rewards can have different effects depending on which order they are placed in. This is extremely important in dog training as the timing of a reward can have drastic effects.

A common mistake that people make is rewarding a reactive dog while they are under threshold. The dog has not yet seen the stimuli that they react to and the owner thinks that they can be proactive by giving the dog treats before the dog sees the stimuli.

Given enough repetitions the dog soon begins to realize that when the treats are brought out the scary stimuli is around the corner, the dog then loses interest in the treats as it means that something bad is about to happen.

The correct way of counterconditioning the dog would be to release the treat to the dog once the dog has seen the stimuli but before the dog has reacted to the stimuli, thus utilizing the law of effect to their advantage.

If treats are presented to the dog before something bad is about to happen such as clipping a dogs nails, or giving them a bath, then the dog will not look forward to getting treats as they begin to associate them with negative things.

Due to the law of effect dogs can lose interest in treats, toys, and even human engagement if taken to the extreme. The law of effect can also be utilized in a multitude of beneficial ways to help dogs step out of their comfort zones and try new things.

“The law of effect can be utilized to build the dogs desire to play with the tug toy.”

Take for example a dog who loves to play fetch with a ball but does not take an interest in playing with a tug toy.

The law of effect can be utilized to build the dogs desire to play with the tug toy.

By having the ball ready to reward the dog you can entice the dog to play with the rope, once the dog shows interest or engagement with the rope then the ball can be released as a reward.

Each time you try this drill you can get a little bit more engagement from the dog until the dog is full on playing with the tug toy. 

The dog soon realized that in order to get the ball they must play with the tug toy, this builds the dogs desire to play with the tug toy whereas before the dog had no desire at all to interact with it.

This is the same concept that trainers use to teach engagement with their dogs. If the dog wants to be rewarded it needs to be engaged with the owner, the dog soon comes to learn that engaging with the owner leads to rewards and a stronger canine human bond has been established.

The law of effect only plays a small part in the bigger picture of dog training, however that small part is a crucial one that if missed can make progress seem impossible.

It also goes to show how dog training is all in the details and how little changes like when a reward is given can have significant impacts on the dog’s behavior and overall wellbeing.

The ability to affect your dog in a positive manner and to make changes in your life is there, you just need to reach out and take hold of it.

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