As I circulate the internet fulfilling my need to be reading about dogs when I am unable to actually have a leash in my hand, I keep running into the same thing over and over. Pet owners are struggling daily with controlling the behaviors of their puppies and dogs.
Instantly I begin to respond and my suggestions always involve the contributions of B.F. Skinner and the extensive field work of his students, Keller and Marian Breland and Bob Bailey. I am talking about operant conditioning.
So as my fingers start hammering away constructing lengthy paragraphs trying to steer people away from a dangerous dependency on positive punishment and direct them to safer waters, while also informing them of the pitfalls of using only positive reinforcement, I start to see it. I can see their confused look through the monitor. Everything I typed after “positive punishment” became a blur, a written version of Charlie Brown’s teachers’ voice….
Positive punishment? What the hell is he talking about?
Meanwhile, the subsequent paragraphs go on to taut the virtues and endless benefit of positive reinforcement and the undeniable power of self discovery, only I have neglected to explain to anybody what these words even mean. The only thing I have often succeeded at doing was confusing and even alienating the very people who I sincerely wish to help and empower.
This blog post is long overdue.
Operant conditioning is based in science, but part its beauty is that you do not have to be a scientist to understand it. While entire books, college courses, and even advanced collegiate degrees are dedicated to it, I will attempt to explain operant conditioning in terms that anybody can understand in as few words as possible. My goal is for you to immediately have at least a fundamental understanding of this knowledge at the conclusion of reading this post.
Is this the end-all-be-all to understanding and applying this knowledge with your dog? Absolutely not. This is the first chunk to get you started. Once you read it, stop and reflect upon it, then read the parts you are still foggy on again. By the time you have digested this content, I will absolutely have more ready for you.
One step at a time.
I suppose we could call this “Operant Conditioning – the abridged version”.
Abridged means shortened, so I while I will do my best to be as brief as possible, some background information is necessary.
Once upon a time there was a scientist named Thorndike. Thorndike put cats in boxes and would time them how long it would take them to figure out that by touching a lever inside they could escape and get a piece of fish. He would then put the cat back in the box and again, time how long it took to escape.
The results demonstrated that the cats were in fact learning to use the lever to get out of the box. Thorndike summarized that a behavior that resulted in a desired consequence would be more likely to be repeated. Conversely, behaviors that resulted in aversive or consequences would be less likely to be repeated. This was called the Law of Effect (1905).
About fifty years later, behaviorist Burrhus Frederic Skinner (that’s why we call him B.F.) took Thorndike’s Law of Effect and ran with it. Skinner elaborated and coined several other terms that we still use today. Skinner’s Behavior Theory, called Operant Conditioning, is the product of Skinner’s work and was fuel for the birth of even more research that would eventually dominate the world of animal training as we know it today.
Keller and Marian Breland along with Bob Bailey picked up where Skinner left off. Graduate students who dedicated their careers and lives to applying Skinner’s behavioral research to the training of animals of all species, these are the key people who are behind what is the most effective practice for teaching and shaping behavior.
Well, here it is. The nuts and bolts in as plain a manner as I can think of. Let’s learn what operant conditioning is really all about. For starters, we must get an idea of the term operant conditioning itself.
Skinner discovered that behaviors are molded and shaped by consequences from the environment. In the context of training our dogs, the human is a huge part of that environment. Our dog’s behavior is significantly influenced by the consequences we apply, whether we are aware or not. I will tell you this, most of the time the human is totally unaware that training is happening all the time.
Whether intentional or not, your dog is learning via operant conditioning 24/7. That’s why there isn’t any debate about the validity of information. Your dog, along with you, learn from the consequences of your behavior. This is why it makes sense to at least be informed on this subject. If it is happening already without your realizing it, why not take control of it and use it to your benefit!
Whenever you are with your dog, they are learning from you. Never forget that.
This is why when people come to me with issues like jumping and play biting the very first thing I do is ask them what is their reaction when this behavior occurs. The reality is they usually have been unknowingly teaching the dog to do the very behavior they want it to stop! Many people find themselves consoling in comforting voices and touches the dog who acts skiddish and hesitant. If only they knew that those pleasant sounds and pleasurable touches were actually teaching the dog that its skiddish and hesitant behavior is a great way to get loved on and touched! Yes, that’s how it works. It’s ok, we’ve all done it at some point. There is good news though.
Things are about to change for you and your dog.
Every good lesson begins with some vocabulary. Let’s begin.
reinforcer: A response from the environment that makes the behavior more likely to occur again..
punisher: A response from the environment that decreases the chances of a behavior happening again.
positive: The word positive in operant conditioning does NOT mean “good” but rather refers to the addition of something. Positive means that something has been added or given to the subject (the dog)
negative: As with positive, do not think about the emotion or subjective context of the word but rather in this case, subtraction. Negative means that something has been taken away from the subject (the dog)
Now that we have that out the way it’s time to put some of the first pieces together. Remember, we are talking about behaviors. Skinner’s behavior theory, or operant conditioning as we know it, states that the (dog) will continue to display behaviors that are reinforced and will discontinue to display behaviors that are punished or ignored. Yes, it’s that simple. Right now you are thinking, “wait, that’s common sense!”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it countless times in the future…
Dog training’s difficulty, is embracing its simplicity.
This is the most common term thrown around on the internet these days in dog training, with good reason I might add. Behaviors that we want to be repeated by the dog, we reinforce. The single most effective way to teach a dog to do a desired behavior is to use positive reinforcement. This really isn’t even up for debate in a world where EVERYTHING is up for debate! In fact, allow me to remind you that even though we are talking about dogs, this applies to humans along with the rest of the thinking world of organisms.
To break it down using our new vocabulary, when we positively reinforce a behavior that means that we are adding something positive as a consequence for a behavior we want to see again. When the dog sits, we give him a treat or a pat on the head. If you do this repeatedly the dog starts to realize it will get something good when it sits. Vioila, you’re dog is learning to sit.
I like to use human examples as well, so lets say positive reinforcement is also when a wife gives her husband an ice cold beer from the fridge after he takes out the trash. If she continues to do this she will see an increase in her husband’s willingness to take the trash out.
This is also where the terms clicker and marker training have come from. Trainers use clickers to “mark” a behavior that they want to happen again which tells the dog it did something good and then receives a treat. The details of clicker/marker training are an entirely different subject all together and one which I will absolutely go into great depths in future articles.
We can also use negative reinforcement. With dogs this is not something we do as much, although it absolutely does have its purpose and role in certain situations. When we negatively reinforce a behavior we are going to remove something unpleasant from a situation that we created the moment the subject does what we want.
The very common misuse of this was the old fashioned way of teaching a dog to down by stomping on the leash putting unpleasant pressure on the dog’s neck in the direction of the ground. The moment the dog began to lay down the pressure was removed. I used to do this. I don’t anymore. Why? Simple, there are much better ways to accomplish the same thing without even so much as a fraction of the conflict and stress on the animal.
We see this in our personal lives as well. Think of the same wife taking a different approach to getting her husband to take out the trash. Let’s say she nagged and nagged and complained and gave him a really hard time about the trash. Then the moment he took out the trash, she became silent. The husband learns the quicker he does the desired behavior the quicker his wife will stop nagging him.
While you can see that negative reinforcement can definitely work, hopefully you can also see the difference in the mood and attitude that could be associated with each. When dealing with dogs people, trainers included, really miss out on using this consequence to it’s fullest potential. While the common terminology for this type of consequence in training is called “avoidance training”, the aversive used during application need not be “horrible” or “painful”. This is where people start to scratch their heads.
In the training of basic everyday obedience commands, the majority of the work should not be painful for the dog. There is no point. I say that not because I am some “purely positive” zealot with an illogical and emotional objection to punishment, but instead because the experience of my own training experiences and those of men and women far greater than myself says so.
With negative reinforcement the “unpleasant” element of the environment being removed as a consequence could simply be the proximity of something mildly stressful, or a very mild pressure from a leash. This is where using an e collar properly is amazing as it provides the ability to create VERY mild sensations that the dog can learn to “turn off” with its behavior.
While pain plays a necessary role in stopping potentially dangerous behaviors in our dogs, when teaching our dog’s what to do, it need not hurt, nor does it serve any benefit for it to do so. I will touch on that a bit more later.
When we want to eliminate a behavior, meaning the dog has something we don’t want it to do again we would use punishment. As explained earlier, punishment is used to decrease the frequency of a behavior or discourage it from happening again.
Negative punishment is when we take away something good after the undesired behavior happens. An example of how this would work with your dog is when teaching them to walk on a leash. The moment the dog pulls you stop moving. In this case, moving is something the dog wants so when they pull and you stop, you are taking away something good.
Let’s visit our loving couple again. Perhaps it is time for bed and the frisky couple is thinking about getting…..amorous….then the husband lets out the mother of all belches. Instantly the wife rolls over. Nope, none for him tonight. You get the idea.
Another very common example is with children. Negative punishment is very frequently used in the context of “grounding”. Upon misbehaving the child has his/her video games or cell phone taken away.
….and the winner for most confusing name goes too…….POSITIVE PUNISHMENT!!! *crowd boooos*
Why is the crowd booing? More than likely because our crowd is educated to the fact that positive punishment is very easy to misuse and can damage the relationship between the trainer and the subject very quickly. Or maybe the boos are coming from people who do not understand how it works and simply have an illogical and emotional attachment to the idea that punishment is “evil”.
Wait, you’re still confused at what positive punishment even is. I understand, believe me I do.
How can punishment be positive? Remember, in our breakdown we learned that when talking about operant conditioning and behavior theory the words positive and negative simply refer to the addition and subtraction of a stimulus.
In positive punishment we are adding something as a consequence to a behavior we do not want the subject to do again. What is added as a punisher depends on the dog. Each subject is different whether human or dog. Knowing the dog you are working with is essential to be able to determine what the appropriate consequence is in order for it to actually function as a punisher.
I will say this and have no issue being quoted on it. Positive punishment does have its place in dog training.
The catch is, that place is very small. Teeny tiny small, in fact.
I also do not recommend it for the majority of pet owners as they simply do not have the skill and timing required to use it effectively. More often than not, they will do more harm than good. That is, if they do it on their own, without any help or guidance. That last sentence is key because for a dog to be fully trained and capable of navigating the unpredictable dangers of the REAL world, it MUST understand that certain choices it makes WILL have unpleasant consequences. Don’t be fooled by the new wave of trainers who say that punishment is “fear” and “intimidation”. That’s not punishment, that’s abuse, and they are two entirely DIFFERENT things.
Some lessons however need to be so powerful that they are never forgotten.
This is where positive punishment finds it’s usefulness. When I want to teach a dog to never go near a rattlesnake, I am not going to use a clicker and some treats. The dog’s life depends on my successfully teaching it to AVOID rattlesnakes at all costs. How can I do that? Well, its’s simple. First one creates a safe environment that provides the dog the opportunity to engage with snake. The moment that dog engages, (something as simple as eye contact) positive punishment will be the consequence. The more the dog engages, the greater the severity of the punishment. The goal is the dog to have a lasting memory that rattlesnakes = NO WAY.
The problem that many people make with punishment is failing to understand that the behavior will resume in the absence of the punisher. The goal is for the dog to believe that the punishment is coming from their behavior itself, NOT the human! If that’s confusing then you should definitely subscribe to the blog as there will much more in depth explanations of that idea coming, this simply isn’t the article to go down that rabbit hole.
Skinner’s behavior theory known as operant conditioning is the foundation of controlling any organism’s behavior from dogs, to whales, and yes, even your spouse.
Positive punishment should be the absolute last resort when dealing with a behavioral issue and should only be used after consulting a trained professional. In my experience working with pet dogs I have found more often than not, a better understanding of these four elements of behavior could have resulted in the avoidance of having to use any positive punishment at all.
When it comes to teaching new behaviors, the carrot is mightier than the stick.
There does need to be a stick, and for a dog who finds aggressive behavior to be more reinforcing than any cookie you have, you will need to seek professional help to provide the appropriate guidance on employing punishment. It’s simply unrealistic to live in a world with no unpleasant consequences for undesirable behaviors.
There is much, much more to operant conditioning when we begin to look at how to actually apply it with our dogs. More vocabulary is required along with looking at the various real life situations in which you can begin to apply your new knowledge. While the fundamental concepts are very simple, in execution it can get tricky and sometimes a little confusing.
Be sure to follow the blog so you don’t miss out when that information hits the press!
I will absolutely be talking about this much more in the future so be sure to stick around!