Tactics of Training: Classical and Operant Conditioning

Training Requires Tactics

Sometimes I think of Wally and I as locked in a virtual duel where he's trying to get what he wants and I'm trying to get what I want out of him, and it can be some mental manuevers going on from both our parts. Add in the third "player", the environment, and it can seem like a mini battle going on.

Well, in any fight, you need weapons and you need tactics. The tactics of the trainer are the principles of learning and conditioning. Our weapons are things we use to implement our chosen tactics. Be they clickers, training collars, or simply our voices and body language (or all of the above!). What we as trainers have to do is use those weapons to our advantage so that the dog will feel driven to do what we would like while also choosing the right tactics to ensure (or at least increase the chances of) our success.

Since I'm not knowledgeable about the weapons, aside from what I use, I'll only stick with what I've used with Wally (I've never used anything on him - so I won't be able to talk training collars or spray bottles, as examples). But I've developed some knowledge of the tactics in this fight from my "battlefield experience" with Wally.

My clicker: My weapon of choice.
My clicker: My weapon of choice.

Our Tactical Options

There are two tactical spheres we have to work with. That might seem like a gross oversimplification, but anything we do as trainer can be fit into one of these two spheres:

  1. Classical Conditioning
  2. Operant Conditioning

Everything else is either a subset or an approach to get at one of these two areas. Modeling? That's a method to get towards operant conditioning (you're "showing the dog how" so he can complete the behavior and be rewarded for doing so - that's operant conditioning). Charging a clicker (or word, or other action)? Classical conditioning. Feeding a dog in the face of a triggering stimulus (person, object, sound)? Classical conditioning.

Tactical Manual: Classical Conditoning

Both Classical and Operant Conditioning were mentioned in EADT: Volume 2, but we'll look at them in more detail here.

Classical Conditioning is pairing two events together consistently to where one event predicts the other. I gave the example of "charging the clicker", but that's only one way, and one you'll just stop using because it won't be necessary. So how else do I use classical conditioning?

Wally's a fearful dog, or at least has fearful tendencies to a lot of things. He won't attack, but he'll try to stay away (or run away if I'd let him) and look visibly shaken and anxious in the face of a trigger. So what I've been doing is a game called "Look at That!". I learned this game from a book called "Control Unleashed". The essence of this game is to reward the dog for looking at whatever is triggering him. The idea is to pair the reward to what used to be a fearful whatever, changing his association to an expectation of something good happening. This, at it's heart, falls under classical conditioning.

It will take time with him. Whatever made him this way has set into his personality and his view of the world. Like with any habit, it will take time for him to break the old ways and embrace the idea that kids don't mean death is near, but instead could very well mean a treat is coming soon. Fear is such a strong motivator and is self-rewarding in a lot of cases (either the scary thing went away, or he got away from the scary thing), it can take a while.

However, it can work. I've noticed Wally improving much more quickly under the "Look at That!" game than the months before of trying to "be brave". This game speaks his behavioral language, it's not a concept - but an actual reality. He probably never understands "bravery", but he can understand "look at kid = treat", "sniff kid = treat", "sit and look at dog = treat".

Positive, Negative, and Punishment in the Dog Trainer's World

"Positive" and "Negative" are words that are loaded with connotation in "regular" language. However, in the dog training world, and the behaviorist world in general, these words mean the following:

  • Positive - something is added to the dog's environment.
  • Negative - something is taken away from the dog's environment.

That's it.

"Punishment" also has it's share of connotation - often considered something physical, like spanking or leash pops/corrections. While, yes, those are punishments (they fall into the +P category), that's not all there is. Negative Punishment has no physical componant at all in most cases, however, it is still punishment because the goal is to decrease the occurrence of a behavior.

The "trick" to punishment is that it has to be a disliked event in the dog's eyes. If you push a dog down to the ground when he jumps up on you, that could be punishing to the dog, or it could be considered the invitation to a physical game. You have to know the dog and what makes him/her tick rather well in order to be efficient with punishment, both -P and +P. Too "easy" and the dog won't get the point. Too "hard" and you can create other problems.

Tactical Manual: Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning is more complicated. The principle is that the dog (the operant) will choose behaviors based on what's been rewarded and what's been punished. This is where the dog's learning comes into play more significantly. In essence, behaviors have consequences. There's four possibilities:

  1. Positive Reinforcement (+R) - The dog gets a reward for choosing that behavior. The reward will then increase the chance the dog chooses that behavior when presented with that stimulus. Example: Trainer says "sit", dog sits, dog gets rewarded.
  2. Negative Reinforcement (-R) - The dog ends a disliked event by performing a behavior. This will increase the chances of the dog performing the behavior in hopes of avoiding the disliked event. Example: Trainer says "sit" and pinches the dog's ear. The pinching stops when the dog sits. Dog will be more likely to sit when he hears "sit" in hopes of avoiding the ear pinch.
  3. Negative Punishment (-P) - The behavior causes the dog to lose something he would otherwise have wanted or loses what he was enjoying. The dog will be less likely to repeat the behavior. Example: Owner is playing fetch with the dog. The dog doesn't return the object. Owner turns away and ends the game and all interaction with the dog.
  4. Positive Punishment (+P) - The behavior causes the dog to have a disliked event occur to him. The dog will be less likely to perform the behavior in hopes of avoiding the disliked event. Example: Dog is caught chewing on a shoe. Owner bats the dogs nose with a newspaper, causing the dog discomfort. The dog will be less likely to chew shoes.

My Weapons of Choice

  • Clicker. Important to me, but only for the teaching phase. Once a behavior is learned, it's not necessary. He already knows when the behavior is complete.
  • Treats. No, they don't have to make your dog fat. They don't have to be huge (dog's don't care - size doesn't matter...as long as they can taste it), and you don't have to be destined to a life of pockets full of dried-up, week-old treats. Mostly for the learning phase, or when doing things like shaping.
  • Voice. This can be powerful, especially if your dog is sensitive to sound and/or your voice. Wally certainly is and I use it to my advantage. A high tone (relative to your normal speaking voice to your dog) can indicate excitement while a deep voice can indicate displeasure or a very sharp command/reprimand. This is my reward when I don't give him treats. A "good boy" and maybe a rub or two. You can also "charge a word" the same way you charged the clicker, btw.
  • Body Language. This is powerful as it's the dog's "native language", but it can be hard to master. I know there's been times where I've said "good dog" but my body said "you idiot!" and Wally's like "thanks...I think?" However, nothing says "get back" like a body block (standing in the path of the dog and not moving or walking a little towards him - best applied when the dog can't go around you). There's other signals that dogs can pick up on as well.
  • Other Rewards. Games, toys, just running around like fools, letting him bark to his heart's content (not that Wally barks much at all), or just letting him sniff every clover, blade of grass, and dandelion for the next 2 minutes. Anything your dog loves can be a reward.

My Choosen Tactics

(I will use the abbreviations for the four methods in the interest of saving space and encouraging familiarity with them).

Given the way Wally is, my tactical approach is primarily +R/-P, though I used -R in a really odd way when teaching him to walk on a loose leash. The +R approach comes in with the clicker and rewards for performed behaviors. You can go in a 100 ways with +R methods, and not all 100 of them will be effective. Know what you're reinforcing! If you don't know, how will the dog know? Well the dog will make a connection, just...maybe not the one you're going for.

Anyway, when Wally does what's required of him, he'll get rewarded in some way, often times just by allowing what he wanted in the first place (remember Premack Principle?). When he doesn't, I'll just withdraw the chance. Doors close (literally and figuratively), games end, treats vanish, I withdraw. All these things get to him and I can notice a chance in attitude pretty quick. Of course, I only punish known behaviors and contexts - that's only fair after all.

I rarely, if ever, use +P on him as he's already sensitive and can get the message without it. That's not to say I'd never ever use it (I never say never...except in the sentence "I never say never"), but it's the last resort tactic for me.

-R was used by accident. When teaching him to walk on a loose leash, I simply let him "outwalk" me to the end of the leash. He didn't like the feeling of the leash making the collar push on his neck, so he made some slack. Being the opportunist I am, I made the leash shorter. And shorter. And shorter. He kept getting that sensation and wanted it to end. End result? He'll slow down, even stop, at the slightest feel of tension pulling on him. Useful because sometimes the leash gets under his legs and wraps around them - he'll feel the tightening and stop instead of walking more and making it even more of a mess. Also stops me from having to use direct leash corrections on him. He self-corrected based on the feeling.

I considered that -R applied accidentally with good success! Of course, it could be +P, just passively applied (I didn't jerk, but the leesh had to in order to create the tension). A little gray area there, was the sensation added by walking out too far, or did he take action to remove it because he felt it and didn't like it instead of saying "oh well" and keep pulling?

To Be Continued

There's more in the Operant Conditioning Manual and ways I've used it on Wally, but there's enough here for this hub. To see examples of Operant Conditioning as I've used it - take a look at the Examples of Operant Conditioning hub.

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Comments 5 comments

shibashake profile image

shibashake 7 years ago

Wow - I continue to really enjoy your treatment of the various dog training methods. You explain it very well even the really confusing positive/negative and reinforcement/punishment lingo.

Been thinking about what you said about Wally hitting the end of the lead. Like you, I would characterize it as R- as well. Still -- an interesting question.


kblover profile image

kblover 7 years ago from USA Author

Thanks shiba! I'm glad you enjoyed the read.

Yeah, I'm inlcined to go with -R as well. It's the interesting thing about the -R/+P pair in that where does one stop and the other begin. Maybe to Wally, the leash did +P on him. Who knows. Is the difference between -R and +P simply when the aversive (the negative stimulus - I know you know what that means, shiba, just for others who may not) is applied? Apply before behavior - it's Neg. Reinforcement, apply after, it's Pos. Punishment?

Hmm...


shibashake profile image

shibashake 7 years ago

Hi Kblover, I just realized that I got confused with my Ps and Rs.

Shortening the leash when your dog pulls I would classify as -P.

As far as I understand it, -P is about taking something good away from the dog.

A dog has infinite freedom (well infinite within the house) without the leash. The act of putting on the leash and then holding it, is by itself a (-) act because it is taking away something from the dog. However, the dog gets the reward of going on a walk.

When you shortened the leash, you are slowly taking away more and more of the dog's freedom. If you shorten the leash a bit whenever your dog pulls, then you are doing -P, i.e. taking something away from the dog to make him stop his pulling.

When the dog hits the end of the leash, he is applying a +P to himself. As soon as he stops pulling, then he is applying a -R on himself.

I never really thought about these equipment side-effects or environmental effects before - it is a very good observation and it probably occurs everywhere in a dog's daily life.


kblover profile image

kblover 7 years ago from USA Author

This is why I love dog training - you always learn something and see something new. You never thought about the scenario until I mentioned it and I never saw it they you described it until now.

Very good points about the leash shortening. He truly was self-correcting, or perhaps better stated as learning from his environment.

It also reminds us that punishement and reinforcement can be both "self-inflicted". We usually just think of the self-rewarding behaviors. I wonder if there's a way to set up more "self-punishing" behaviors as well?


shibashake profile image

shibashake 7 years ago

"I wonder if there's a way to set up more "self-punishing" behaviors as well?"

The sound aversion pads that Victoria Stilwell used in some of her dog training shows probably fall into this category. You place a pad that makes a loud sound on a counter that you do not want your dog to jump on. When the dog jumps on the counter he triggers the sound, and as soon as he gets down, i.e. stops touching the pad, the sound stops.

Using the bitter apple spray for smell aversion is a similar technique.

In fact, the shock anti-bark collar is also self-punishing and that has many associated risks. So self-punishing techniques have their own associated dangers, as with all aversive techniques.

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