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:
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).
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.