Professional dog trainers use something called “Operant conditioning” when training dogs, it sounds quite complex, but it’s quite easy to understand.

In dog training, it’s the base of where a lot of the labels trainers give themselves come from. Like “Balanced” trainers will refer to the quadrants of operant conditioning, and say they use all of them in order to train a dog, whilst other trainers will refer to themselves as “positive reinforcement” based trainers, which refers to a single specific quadrant of operant conditioning (and that’s where I identify!)

Why do we pro trainers do this? Because it explains the vast majority of our training methodologies, because behavior modification is a type of learning in which behavior is modified by its consequences – and this applies universally. So it works as much for me and you as it does for your dog, or the killer whale in the zoo.

Operant conditioning is one way to change behavior in dogs. In this post we’ll work you through the basics of about operant conditioning in dog training and how it works.

Note: All the images in this post will show you an element of Operant and/or classical conditioning! Check the captions for the explanation.

Operant Conditioning example with labrador at table
Operant Conditioning example with labrador at table – This is really good because you can see here that this labrador has learned that if he sits here and looks cute? Chances are he’ll get some scraps… Positive reinforcement!

What Is Operant Conditioning.

Operant conditioning is pretty much how the animal kingdom learns. It’s a form of learning in which behavior is modified by its consequences. When you reward or punish your dog for certain behaviors, you are using operant conditioning to modify their behavior.

It’s the essence of experimentation and learning from it’s results.

aka, I try a thing, it either works of it doesn’t work, which results in what I did or did not want – and then we learn how to manipulate the system in order to get what we want.

That’s operant conditioning.

The process we trainers do, is take that learning theory and apply it to teaching our dogs to thrive in our world.

More technically, there are three parts to operant conditioning:

1) reinforcement

2) punishment

3) extinction (withdrawing reinforcement or punishment).

Reinforcement strengthens a behavior while punishment weakens it; extinction removes all rewards for a particular behavior so that it stops happening altogether. All three of these processes happen after an action has been performed, rather than before like in classical conditioning (see below).

Operant Conditioning 4 lucy the coonhound howling up a tree as an example of positive reinforcement
This is Lucy! She’s my coonhound, she’s howling up a tree here because it’s genetically rewarding for her.
She, as a coonhound, has had generations of selective breeding that rewards her for hunting and putting ‘prey anima’s (namely raccoons) up trees, so, howling up a tree is something she will do even if she’s not found something – because she gets enjoyment from it! This instance would be positive reinforcement but a secondary reinforcer because she knows this one’s just for fun.

Where did Operant Conditioning Come From?

The father of operant conditioning is B.F. Skinner. He developed the theory in the 1930s and 1940s, building on the work of Pavlov and Thorndike. Skinner’s research on behaviorism changed how people thought about learning and behavior; his best-known experiment involved teaching pigeons to press buttons by rewarding them with food when they did so correctly.

Why Do We Use Operant Conditioning In Dog Training?

Operant conditioning is how everything learns from ducks to giraffes, so, manipulating that theory to teach just makes sense. It means we’re maximising what our dog learns and conditioning our dogs to respond in a certain way as second nature.

Operant conditioning and classical conditioning are usually used in conjunction when it comes to training our dogs new behaviours.

There are a few reasons why operant conditioning is so popular. First, it’s relatively simple and easy to understand. You don’t need to know anything about brain chemistry or neuroscience to use it effectively; all you need is a dog, some treats and a clicker (or other form of positive reinforcement).

Second, it creates a predictable pattern.

Third, it works relatively quickly.

How Is Operant Conditioning Different To Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning is a type of learning also and differs to operant conditioning as it occurs when an animal or human becomes accustomed to an association between one thing and another, i.e consequential things, the door bell rings, I answer the door – because most often there is a person on the other side of the door with a package that I ordered.

The most well known example of this is from the ‘founding’ experiment for Classical conditioning; Pavlov’s dog.

Pavlov’s dog was where a dog heard the sound of a bell they would begin to salivate because they associated the bell being rung with food being delivered to them.

This is sometimes coined as “sequential” learning or “pavlovian conditioning” (Which I promise has nothing to do with tasty deserts… though I suppose we could use pavlovas in a training session for human motivation.)

Operant conditioning is different as it involves learning by doing something which has been reinforced by a reward or punishment.

This is a really easy way of visualising operant conditioning. It can feel really confusing at times, but it’s pretty simple.

Operant Conditioning in dog training is quite simply executed.

There are four quadrants of operant conditioning, all of which work on a very similar premise and it’s about whether you apply a good thing or a bad thing, or don’t apply it. All of these work to either encourage or discourage a behavior to moderate or change the strength of a behavior – aka train!

You’ll see this explained in more scientific language, but I’m trying to make this as accessible as possible (because science is nuanced language).

Positive Reinforcement – Giving a desirable reward for a behaviour performed correctly increases the chance of that behaviour being repeated.⁠

Negative Punishment – Removing or denying a desirable reward for a behaviour performed incorrectly decreases the chance of that behaviour being repeated.⁠

Positive Punishment – Giving an undesirable punishment for a behaviour performed incorrectly increases the chance of that behaviour not being repeated.⁠

Negative Reinforcement – Not giving an undesirable punishment for a behaviour performed correctly increases the chance of that behaviour being repeated.⁠

What is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive Reinforcement – Giving a desirable reward (aka a positive stimulus) for a behaviour performed correctly increases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.⁠

Positive reinforcement is the use of rewards to increase the likelihood that a behavior will occur again in the future. Positive reinforcement is a type of learning that occurs when a behavior is followed by something pleasant. For example, if your dog sits for you and then gets treats as a reward, he/she is more likely to sit again next time because it was pleasurable (the treat). We also tend to couple this with a clicker or a marker word like “good boy”.

Well known examples of positive reinforcement training are labels like Clicker training, force free, fear free, positive reinforcement and sometimes “Holistic”.

Human Example: You put money in a slot machine and it pays out

Dog Example: your dog opens the bin and gets to the chicken you threw out!

Operant Conditioning doodle dog pulling on a leash
this doodle dog pulls on a leash as you can see. He pulls on the leash even though the collar probably hurts a little (this would be positive punishment!), but it’s because what he sees in the distance is more rewarding than what his guardian wants him to do. Consequently, he pulls because the lure of positive reinforcement overwhelms the negative of the collar’s discomfort.

What Is Positive Punishment?

Positive punishment is the act of applying an unpleasant stimulus to a dog in response to a behavior. This type of conditioning is not often used in training, because it can have negative side effects on your dog’s behavior and mental health. Positive punishment may be effective for stopping unwanted behaviors, but it’s not recommended for puppies or dogs who are sensitive or fearful.

If you decide that positive punishment is right for your situation and want to use it with your pet, make sure you do so safely.

An example of positive punishment is slip leads, ecollars and prong collars applying their negative stimulus.

Human Example: You touch a hot stove and very quickly learn not to touch it again.

Dog Example: Your dog gets stung by a bee, and learns not to go near bee hives or do so carefully.

What Is Negative Reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement, like positive reinforcement, involves adding something to encourage a behavior. In this case, however, you are removing something unpleasant in order to encourage the desired behavior. For example: if your dog jumps on your furniture and you tell him “no” when he does so (removing the jumping), he will learn that jumping will cause something undesirable (your disapproval) and stop doing it. This is an example of negative reinforcement because it involves removing something unpleasant from your dog’s life by giving him attention when he does what you want him to do instead of punishing him for doing wrong things or ignoring him altogether when he does good things.

Negative reinforcement isn’t as effective as positive reinforcement because it doesn’t increase our dogs’ desire for us–it just makes them less afraid of losing their freedom or getting into trouble if they disobey orders from us!

Human Example: You miss getting side swiped by a car, and it reminds you to keep behind the lines at the crossing.

Dog Example: Your dog doesn’t get scratched by the cat when he chases it, so he’s more likely to do it again.

Operant Conditioning nova scotia duck tolling retriever dog getting bathed
this toller getting a bath is a great example of positive punishment that you wouldn’t consider typically as punishment. But, the bath here is an aversive stimulus and the dog is far from happy receiving this treatment.
This is why your dog learns that they don’t like water and/or the bathroom or the word “Bath”!

What Is Negative Punishment?

Negative punishment refers to the removal of something pleasant or rewarding after a behavior. For example, if you pet your dog and then immediately stop and walk away when he begins to bite your hand, that’s negative punishment.

Negative reinforcement is also similar in that it involves removing something unpleasant after a behavior occurs; however, unlike negative reinforcement–where the removal of an unpleasant stimulus increases an animal’s behavior–negative punishment decreases it.

Human Example: You were given a target at work where you would have gotten a bonus, but you didn’t hit target so you didn’t get the bonus.

Dog Example: Your dog has a playmate who they always play with! But their friend is tired and when your dog tries to play the other dog walks off and finds a quieter place to take a nap.

Operant Conditioning 6
one that you hear a lot is that “my dog loves their prong collar”, right? So, that’s classical conditioning. Indie gets excited when his collar comes out too, because it means we’re about to go do something fun. However, that doesn’t mean he’d be terribly enthused about it then hurting him when he did something wrong.
If your trainer or an individual ever tells you that a prong collar doesn’t hurt your dog, you need to leave because it’s the first sign that they don’t understand the science behind how they train.

The Terms Are Confusing Right?

That’s primarily because we associate positive and negative in terms of emotional things, like “oh, positive must mean good” but that directly conflicts with the sentiment of positive punishment, right?

Well, in Skinner’s way, we’re looking at as negative means to take something away, whilst positive means we apply something or give something (aka. The addition of a stimulus)

E.g. negative punishment means we remove punishment.

e.g. positive reinforcement means we add reinforcement.

What Are Good Reinforcers?

There are two main categories of reinforcers: primary and secondary. Primary reinforcers are things that animals need in order to survive (food, water), while secondary reinforcers include social interactions like praise or attention from another person.

Suffice to say, you’re looking at what your dog loves. These would be called “High value treats” and for most dogs this is a food reward.

For example,

  • Chicken (primary reinforcer)
  • Playing Tug (secondary reinforcer)
  • Cheese (primary)
  • Love & fuss (secondary)

But this list is not exhaustive, if you want to get more of an idea on high value treats, understanding your dog’s predatory motor pattern will help!

Operant Conditioning Indie the german shepherd and recall
Recall is a really great example, because there are two camps for this. There’s the Positive Punishment/negative reinforcement route, which says if the dog comes, they don’t get stimmed (negative reinforcement), or they get stimmed for not coming (positive punishment). Then you’ve got the positive reinforcement – reward for coming, no reward for not coming (negative punishment). We used positive reinforcement in this instance!

What Are Punishments For Dogs?

Punishments, such as leash corrections, timeouts, a prong collar, ecollar, slip lead etc are given or applied when the dog doesn’t perform the behavior. These devices are designed to create an unpleasant stimulus (pain) via prongs or an electrical shock (sometimes referred to as a “stim”, or a static shock, but it passes current between two anodes through your dog’s neck to surprise them and create a negative association with their act) when your dog pulls on the leash, reacts, or similar.

They can be effective when executed properly and with certainty that your dog knows why they are being punished.

However, they can also stress out your dog and cause them to become aggressive or fearful of you, or creating a missed association, for example, your dog is running merrily towards another dog, you use the proper escalation process of their ecollar, and you eventually stim your dog to make them listen to you, however, in that last second, your dog stopped, looked at a child who was playing with a ball, and now they are associating the child with pain/discomfort/unpleasant things. Consequently, the next time they see a child, they may be inclined to growl at the child before they get hurt again.

Punishments may also lead to learned helplessness in dogs which means that they give up because they believe there’s nothing they can do about it anyway (this happens most often when people use punishment incorrectly – which is incredibly easy to do.).

golden retriever as operant conditioning
You see golden retrievers very often with things in their mouth.
They do this because they have been heavily reinforced through generations of practice and breeding, that it’s a good thing.
So much so, that a lot of retrievers find it satisfying to hold things – even when they don’t need to. So, here? Holding this stick is positively reinforcing this golden retriever. Clever stuff, huh?

Does My Dog Need Punishment?

No, research has shown, time after time, that dogs don’t need or require punishment in order to learn. In fact, there is plenty of research that shows how punishing a dog can make them anxious, fearful and maladjusted. Punishment is not effective in the long term, and it can be detrimental to your relationship with your dog. Punishment tends to be very prevalent in the united states as a training technique.

Positive Vs Negative

If you want your dog to perform a behavior more frequently or consistently, you’re better off using positive reinforcement than negative punishment, negative reinforcement or positive punishment.

This is because negative punishment can make your dog fearful, which will cause him to stop performing the behavior. For example, if you punish your dog when he jumps up on people, he may stop doing it altogether or start jumping up in other situations where he’s not corrected. Much like using a prong collar for teaching loose leash walking, what happens when the collar comes off? Usually the progress disappears, because the process isn’t learned, it’s threatened.

In addition, if you use positive punishment and accidentally hurt your dog while trying to correct him (for example by hitting him too hard), he may become afraid of you and start avoiding you altogether.

Dr Ian Dunbar said;

To use shock as an effective dog training method you will need:

1. a thorough understanding of canine behaviour,

2. a thorough understanding of learning theory, and

3. impeccable timing.

And if you have those three things, you don’t need a shock collar.”

Which is absolutely true. If you have all of those things, then the only thing you need to do is think in a slightly less punitive manner and problem solve the dog in front of you.

Lucy showing how a bed is more positively reinforcing
Lucy showing how a bed is more positively reinforcing than the floor. For Lucy, here, it was a case that the bed is more comfortable, so she lays on it. The best positively reinforces her decision. This bed is awesome by the way! it’s from big barker.

Positive reinforcement works best for changing dog behavior

Positive reinforcement is more effective than negative punishment.

Positive reinforcement is more effective than positive punishment.

Positive reinforcement is more effective than negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement works best for changing dog behavior, whether it’s for fearful dogs or dealing with an unwanted behavior. because it strengthens the behavior you want to encourage, while negative punishment and positive punishment can actually make things worse by strengthening unwanted behaviors as well as creating other problems in your relationship with your dog (such as fear).

A well known example of positive training


The single best way to train, that is universally accepted by modern animal trainers (across all species!) is with positive reinforcement and classical conditioning to promote good behavior (and creating voluntary behaviors!). Because it’s effective treatment for a fearful response, it’s effective for obedience training, and everything in between – and every dog responds to it. Every dog – because it’s not something that’s unique to dogs, every animal responds to it!

Reward-based methods are the future of dog training, because they’re really going to create a whole new generation of dogs, and they’ll be a wonderful family dog and a happy dog.

Slowly, throughout the world, the reward-based training for dogs is moving forward, with information becoming more and more accessible on a daily basis, and soon as we introduce new people to this kind of training, we’ll be fostering wonderful progress for our dogs.


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