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Learning Theory Definitions

Classical Conditioning

Operant Conditioning

Desensitization & Counter Conditioning

Schedules of Reinforcements

Proofing & Generalization



Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning refers to a process in which an animal behaves in a certain way and by the way the environment reacts to this behavior, it decides whether to engage in this behavior again or not.

 Simply out, the dog acts in some manner and checks the consequences. If the consequences are good or beneficial to the dog, he will have the tendency to acts in that manner again. If the consequences are bad, he will have the tendency to avoid acting in that manner.

If the consequence is good – it is called reinforcement. Reinforcement is everything that makes a behavior repeat. If the consequences are bad – it is called punishment. A punishment is everything that extinguishes a behavior.

 There are 4 possible consequences you should be familiar with: 

  1. Positive reinforcement:
    1. Something good happens right after the behavior. The dog does something and immediately after he gets something he likes – a treat, a toy, a hug, a kiss, a game of tug, a game of fetch, etc. The dog will want do whatever he did just before he received his reward again.
  2. Negative reinforcement:
    1. Something bad is being taken away. By taking something bad away you actually reward your dog.

                                                               i.      Let’s say your dog is standing in the sun (it is very hot) – then, the dog steps into the shade and the hot annoying sun is being “taken away”. Something bad was taken away and the behavior was negatively reinforced – the dog will tend to act in that manner again (moving to the shade).

                                                             ii.      Here’s an old and rather nasty training method: you want to teach your dog to hold a ball in its mouth. You pinch your dog’s ear until it hurts and the dog opens his mouth to yelp. Once the mouth is open, you shove the ball in the dogs’ mouth and stop pinching the ear. What happened: your dog felt pain. He behaved in a certain way – opened his mouth and held the ball and the pain went away – taking the ball was negatively reinforced.

                                                            iii.      Note: I do not endorse this type of training by any way – the examples are made in order to explain the theoretical concept. I never quite understood why anyone would hurt an animal (including humans).

  1. Positive Punishment:
    1. Something bad is actively happening to the animal. This can be anything your dog doesn’t like done to him – the obvious is being hit, choked (with the choke chain), being shouted at, etc. The dog will tend to avoid doing the behavior that immediately preceded the bad thing that happened to him.
    2. Note: I do not endorse this type of training by any way – the examples are made in order to explain the theoretical concept. I never quite understood why anyone would hurt an animal (including humans).
  2. Negative punishment:
    1. Something good is being taken away from the dog.
    2. Let’s say your dog plays with you, suddenly, it hurts you by mouthing your arm. You immediately leave the room and ignore the dog for a short period of time. You have taken something good (play time) from your dog. Your dog will avoid doing this behavior again.
    3. Your dog jumps on you to greet you – he seeks social contact. As he jumps, you turn your back and walk away – you took something good (your greeting) away from him – the dog will avoid this behavior

 It is important to remember that in order for those operant conditioning principles to work one must apply them consistently and in good timing. If you fail to be consistent, your dog will fail to understand the association. If your timing is off – your dog may associate a behavior you did not intend him to. In order for learning to take place the consequence must come immediately after the behavior. Otherwise, the dog cannot make the correct association.




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