Classed and Operant Conditioning

There are many ways dogs learn, but if you are training your dog to respond to a cue or if your goal is to change his emotional response to a trigger, you will very likely use the basics of operant and dassical conditioning. The word conditioning simply means “learning”. You do not need have to have a degree in behavioral science to understand the meaning of these two; we will take a look at each using some common examples in your daily interactions with your dog.

  Psychologist B. F. Skinner.  

Operant Conditioning

In operant conditioning, your dog learns to “operate” in his environment because his behavior is maintained by consequences, those consequences being either reinforcement or punishment.

For instance, in the case of reinforcement, if you tell your dog to “sit” and upon sitting down you give him a cookie, he learns that doing what you say and “operating” (in this case, sitting)

results in a pleasant consequence: The cookie. If you reward the behavior often enough, especially during your dog’s initial stages of learning, you will see an increase in the sitting behavior. This follows Thomdike’s law of effect which states: “Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation.” A behavior is therefore said to be reinforced when it occurs with a greater frequency.

In his Skinner box experiment, B. F. Skinner (the father of operant conditioning) delivered food to rats that engaged in a specific behavior, which was pressing a lever. After careful observations, he came to the conclusion that “behaviors that are reinforced, tend to be repeated and strengthened, whereas, behaviors that are not reinforced tend to extinguish and weaken.”

Jn the case of punishment, if your dog is wandering in the woods and gets sprayed by a skunk one day, he may be shocked enough to avoid going near the black and white animal once and for all. He may then decide to “operate” in his environment by running the other way upon spotting one. In this case, according to Thomdike’s law of effect, “responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation.” Behaviors are therefore said to be punished when they occur with less frequency.

Einstein Says: Punishment is not determined by using hostile or aversive methods but rather by its effect on the rate of the behavior. In behavior science, “punishment” does not mean hostile, but rather means that it causes a behavior to occur with less frequency.

To sum things up, the environment around a dog can lead to behavioral changes because of consequences. From a dog’s perspective there are three possibilities taking place ¥¥’hen faced with stimuli.

Neutral Operants

The environment neither increases nor decreases the probability of a behavior being repeated. To a dog, the color of the sky is pretty irrelevant and has no effect whatsoever on his behavior.


The environment increases the probability of a behavior being repeated. A dog may increase his jumping behavior because he is given

attention when he does this (positive reinforcement), or a dog may increase the behavior of hiding behind a couch because when he does so, the owner stops chasing him to give him a bath. (negative reinforcement).


The environment decreases the probability of a behavior being repeated. Punishment weakens and extinguishes behavior. A dog may stop pestering a cat after the cat has scratched him (positive punishment), or a dog may stop jumping on the owner because the owner leaves the room every time he engages in such behavior (negative punishment).

We will see this in more detail in the “Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning” segment later in the article.

Note: In the case of positive and negative reinforcemenVpunishment, you can think of positive as meaning something is added, while negative means something is removed — the words do not mean “good” or “bad” in this context.

Classical Conditioning

In classical conditioning, a stimulus signals the occurrence of a second stimulus. The father of this form of learning is Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov. In a study on digestive processes, Ivan Pavlov was evaluating the role of salivary glands. He employed several dogs for his experiments, and as good droolers, the dogs were salivating abundantly at the sight of food. This is a normal, natural response known as an “unconditioned response.” Indeed, the dogs did not have to learn to drool at the sight of food, because this is innate, natural behavior.

However, as time went by, he noticed that the dogs started salivating even when no food was in sight. Instead, they were drooling at the simple sight of any person wearing a lab coat! How did this happen? Basically, the dogs learned to associate seeing the people working there with receiving food. To further prove these associations, Ivan Pavlov started ringing a bell before feeding food, and with time, the noise of the bell alone had dogs drooling. The bell which was a neutral stimulus (meaning it initially meant nothing to the dog) became a conditioned stimulus (the dog learned to associate the bell with food), causing a conditioned response (the drooling). There are several conditioned stimuli surrounding dogs each day. Following are examples of conditioned reinforcers:

The Sight of the Leash

To dogs a leash initially means nothing (neutral stimulus), but with time, they start associating it with walks (conditioned stimulus) and get excited by the sight of it (conditioned response).

The Doorbell

To a dog the noise of a doorbell means nothing at first (neutral stimulus), but with time, he starts associating it with people coming into the home (conditioned stimulus) and starts getting excited/nervous/anxious when he hears it (conditioned response).

A Clicker

To a dog the clicking noise of a clicked means nothin9 initially (neutral stimulus), but after “charging* it by pairing it with treats, the clicker is associated with treats (conditioned stimulus), and the dog becomes happy as soon as you take the clicker out of your pocket

(conditioned response).

You can learn about clicker training and how to charge the clicker on h gdgg.

Classical Conditioning versus Operant Conditioning

ConNsed about the differences between dassicat and operant conditioning? The two are different, yet similar in some ways. Here are some tips on how to tell them apart.

Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner is considered the father of operant conditioning.

The behavior the dog engages in is voluntary (the dog willfully sits upon request).

The dog rationally associates a voluntary behavior with a consequence (the dog learns the equation “if I sit, I get a treat”).

The dog is an active participant and makes choices based on consequences (“should I sit down in order to receive the tasty treat?”).

Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov is considered the father of classical conditioning.

The behavior the dog engages in is involuntary (physiological or emotional responses are automatic reflexes).

The dog develops an involuntary response to a conditioned stimulus (the dog drools at the sight of the food bowl because he has learned to associate it with food).

The dog is passive and learns without performing any vo\untary actions.

Basically “operant” conditioning involves the dog doing something (“operating”) to receive a reward, while in classical conditioning the dog remains passive.

The Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning

There are various methods dog trainers and dog behavior experts resort to in order to make a dog operate.

Einstein Says: Once again, it is important to point out that in behavior tams, the words positive and negative are not used to mean good or bad, but rather, positive means addition and negative means subtraction. Also, as mentioned earlier, the term °reinforcement” denotes a behavior that increases in frequency, whereas, the term “punishment’ is not used to mean anything hostile, but simply denotes a behavior that decreases in frequency.

Pos*ive Reinforcement

In this case, positive means adding something to make a behavior increase (reinforcement). Example: You start giving (adding) your dog attention when he jumps. With time, the behavior of jumpin9 increases.

Negative Reinforcement

In this case, negative means removing something to make a behavior increase (reinforcement). Example: You stop staring (subtract) at your dog in a threatening way, the moment he looks away. With time, the behavior of looking away increases.

Positive Punishment

In this case, positive means adding something to make a behavior decrease. Example: In this case you start giving (add) a squirt of water in the face the moment your dog barks. With time, the behavior of barking decreases.

Negative Punishment

In this case negative means removing something to make a behavior decrease. Example: You stop giving (subtract) attention to your dog when he jumps. With time, the behavior of jumping decreases.

Please note that these are just examples to make things easier to understand. You should never squirt your dog in the face with water or stare at your dog in a threatening manner. To learn more about the benefits of reward-based training methods, see this article.

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