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Trainer Terms Explained: Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning – Your Dog Training Superpower For Your Pawfect Pup

For dog guardians and trainers, operant conditioning is one of the most powerful tools in our training toolbox. This evidence-based psychological principle allows us to shape and reinforce desirable behaviours while reducing undesirable ones. The end result? A reliable, well-trained dog who behaves impeccably both at home and out in the wild world.

While operant conditioning sounds like a mouthful, the core premise is simple – consequences influence future behaviours. Reinforce good behaviours with positive outcomes and your dog will repeat them more often. Allow negative behaviours to be accidently rewarded or go unaddressed, and you’ll see more of those too.

By strategically delivering or removing particular consequences after your dog acts in specific ways, you’re able to train practically any behaviour you desire through operant conditioning principles. From basic cues like sit and stay to complex tricks and overcoming behavioural issues, operant conditioning done right is a total game-changer (pun intended).

What is Operant Conditioning?

The term “operant conditioning” refers to the learning process of modifying voluntary behaviours based on motivating or demotivating consequences. It involves systematically applying different reinforcement techniques to either increase or decrease the frequency of specific behaviours occurring.

Unlike classical conditioning (more on that next week) where an initially neutral stimulus is paired with an existing biological response, operant conditioning actually creates new learned behaviours from scratch by making associations between an action and its resulting outcome.

For example, if your dog sits when asked and gets rewarded with a treat, they’re more likely to repeat sitting in the future when you give the sit cue (Positive Reinforcement). Likewise, if your dog jumps on you and you immediately leave the room then they’re less likely to jump up over time because you’ve given feedback that jumping means they lose access to you (Negative Punishment). The consequences shape whether behaviours are reinforced or discouraged over time.

Operant conditioning is considered an instrumental learning model because the learner (in this case, your Fido) is an active participant and operates on their environment to produce different outcomes through their behaviours. 

The History of Operant Conditioning

The principles behind operant conditioning were first discovered in the early 1900s by American psychologist B.F. Skinner. His pioneering work involved conducting experiments where rats and pigeons were able to earn food or other rewards by performing specific actions like pressing a lever or pecking at a disk. As a psychology and behaviour geek I love Skinner. There’s a great book called ‘Opening Skinners Box” by Lauren Slater that is a must read for anyone interested in psychology experiments of the 20th Century. Both fascinating and scary!

Back to Skinner. By studying how different consequences influenced the rates and patterns of these behaviours, Skinner identified key principles for effectively reinforcing or diminishing responses that became the foundation of operant conditioning theory. These core principles are still widely applied today across human behavioural studies, classroom management, animal training, and many other fields.

Four Operant Conditioning Principles for Training Dogs

1. Positive Reinforcement

This involves adding a desirable consequence (like treats, toys, affection, etc.) immediately after a behaviour occurs to increase the likelihood of that behaviour happening again in the future. For example, saying “good sit!” and giving your dog a treat anytime their bottom hits the floor when cued. Over time, your dog learns that following the sit cue leads to rewards they enjoy. This is the preferred way to train your dog and will improve the relationship that you have together. The desirable consequence doesn’t always have to be food. It could be a game of tug, playing a game of fetch, Boop the Snoot (Stan Lee’s and Brock’s personal favourite), or any other game that your dog finds rewarding. Positive reinforcement will help your dog learn a new behaviour, or help them offer an acceptable alternative behaviour when they’re struggling with a situation that they don’t yet have the skills to cope with.

2. Negative Reinforcement 

With negative reinforcement, you remove or prevent an undesirable consequence when the target behaviour occurs, which reinforces or increases the frequency of that behaviour. A common example is pulling slightly on a dog’s leash to add leash pressure when they start to pull, then releasing that pressure when they return to a loose leash walk. This is not a recommended training principle in modern dog training as we don’t want to give an undesirable consequence in order to then remove it. It damages the relationship you have with your dog. To put it into a human perspective, how would you feel towards your partner if every time you were late home from work they locked you out of the house and only opened the door when you sat on the front step. Sure, you’d likely start getting home on time but you’d surely get p’d off.

3. Positive Punishment

Adding an undesirable consequence (like a harsh verbal correction – the guttural sounding ‘uh uh’ that we are all guilty of using), citronella spray, leash pop, prong collar correction etc.) after an unwanted behaviour to decrease that behaviour from happening again in the future. This is not a recommended training principle in modern dog training. Positive punishment techniques have been condemned by animal welfare and animal health professionals the world over. Positive punishment trainers offer a quick fix because the dog’s behaviour is suppressed rather than teaching a more acceptable behaviour to help Fluffy manage their big feelings. You might like to read: the RSPCA stance on aversive techniques; the Pet Professional Guild and Association of Pet Dog Trainers Australia joint stance on punishment-based training techniques; and the Australian Veterinary Association’s policy on the use of punishment and negative reinforcement in dog training.

4. Negative Punishment 

With negative punishment, you remove a desired consequence when an undesirable behaviour occurs to reduce that behaviour’s frequency. A classic example is firmly saying “too bad” and withholding a treat away if your dog breaks a sit before being released. This can lead to frustration, damage your relationship with your dog and should be used sparingly in your training. After all, we want to set your dog up for success so saying “too bad” and withholding the treat shouldn’t be the end of the training story. You should ask for a behaviour that you know they will reliably offer, reward it and end the training session. If your dog isn’t offering the behaviour on cue then it’s likely that they don’t fully understand what you’re asking for, they haven’t learned that behaviour in that environment, or there is some other reason that they don’t want to offer it like the surface they’re on, pain, or a multitude of other reasons that it’s your job as the guardian/trainer to figure out.

How to Implement Operant Conditioning Dog Training

So now that you understand the “whats” and the “whys” behind operant conditioning’s different reinforcement methods, how can you actually implement these principles in your dog training program?

Start by defining your criteria for success – what specific behaviours or skills do you want your dog to learn? Break down complex behaviour chains into individual components you can shape one step at a time. For example, if you want to teach your dog to wave on cue, you’d first capture and reward them for lifting a single paw, then raise criteria to two paws off the ground in repetition, then chaining that with a head turn as if waving, etc. Break it down into all the little approximations of the final behaviour that you want.

Here’s a basic positive reinforcement training process leveraging operant conditioning:

1. Get Your Dog’s Attention

Have high-value treats ready and call your dog’s name or use an interrupter sound/attention noise to get their focus before giving your first cue.

2. Capture & Reward Successes

Whether luring, shaping, or capturing behaviours, any movement toward the final behaviour you want earns a treat and praise party! Raise criteria for rewarding step-by-step.

3. Ignore Mistakes and Give Feedback

If your dog doesn’t respond correctly, avoid stopping rewarding entirely. Just reset and try the cue again – rewarding is what will get that light bulb moment. For hearing dogs I say “uh oh” or “nice try” and then I reset the dog by rewarding away before inviting them back to try again. For deaf dogs I shrug my shoulders and then reset the dog by rewarding away before inviting them back to try again.

4. End on a Positive Note

Always give at least a couple great rewards in a row at the end of each session to build your dog’s love for training. A jackpot of food rewards, or a serious game of tug (if your dog finds it rewarding) at the end of a training session will have your doggo wanting to engage with training in the next session. Don’t forget to keep your sessions short – maximum 3 minutes.

5. Start Small and Raise Criteria

Short, frequent training sessions focused on capturing small increments of new skills before building duration and adding distractions or distance. If your dog struggles, then reduce the criteria to set them up to re-succeed by going back a step or two to where they last had success before progressing forward again.

The Power of Positive Reinforcement in Training

While all four quadrants of operant conditioning have their uses, modern dog trainers overwhelming favour positive reinforcement-based methods as the most humane and effective approach. By focusing training on adding pleasant consequences like food rewards, praise, play, and affection, you strengthen your dog’s motivation to repeat desired behaviours and create lasting positive associations around the cues and skills that you’re teaching.

Punishment-based techniques like scoldings, leash pops, spray corrections, etc. may seem to “work” in the short term by decreasing bad behaviours through adding something unpleasant. However, these methods often come with fallout like increasing anxiety, fear, increased aggression, eroding your dog’s trust, and failing to reinforce the actual behaviours you do want to see instead. Punishment techniques can be downright dangerous.

Beware a recent flurry of trainers marketing themselves as helping you to become a leader and using words like positive to suck you in to believing they are positive reinforcement force-free trainers. Do your research before you engage a new trainer. If they use positive reinforcement force-free techniques then they will likely be a member of the Pet Professional Guild Australia (PPGA) or the Association of Pet Dog Trainers Australia (APDT).

Positive reinforcement is the most powerful mechanism for actively encouraging your dog to offer the exact responses and behaviours you want to become permanent part of their repertoire. It’s the gentlest, most effective force-free approach to training.

Game On! Let’s Play


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