Operant conditioning means that the choices that the dog makes have consequences. The training methods are all based on the principle of classical and operant conditioning. Both rewards and punishment are important parts of this theory that explain the basic methods of learning, which applies to both animals and human beings.

When one learns and understands the psychology involved in training a dog, he/she can effectively teach his/ her dog to perform specific tasks. Also, this concept helps in handling an unruly kid, spouse, immediate family member or even a mischievous cat. As basic animal psychology, Operant conditioning applies to all animal species, man included.

Principles of Operant Conditioning

Positive reinforcement

The positive aspect of behavior implies addition of something. Reinforcement indicates an increase in behavior. When a dog sits, and the owner responds by offering him a treat. The dog’s behavior of sitting invited a good gesture from the owner i.e. a treat. Therefore, the dog is likely to sit more often thus the behavior increases.

Positive punishment

A Positive punishment occurs when the dog’s behavior triggers a bad thing to happen. Positive implies that something is added while punishment implies that a behavior declines. For instance, when a dog jumps on the owner and he (the owner) knees the dog hard on the chest, the dog will become uncomfortable and may not like the experience. To express his displeasure, the dog will reduce the number of time he jumps on the owner. Furthermore, the dog will weigh the situation next time he wants to jump on the owner.

Negative punishment

This punishment occurs when the dog’s behavior makes a good thing to go away. For instance, when a dog jumps on the owner, he (the owner) turns his back and steps away. The jumping behavior seems the owner’s attention to go away. In this principle a mild negative consequence is used to tame unwanted behavior.

Negative Reinforcement

In this case, the dog’s behavior causes something bad to go away. Negative means taking something away while reinforcement means increasing a given behavior. For instance, when a trainer wants a dog that is lying down to sit, the trainer will pull the dog’s leash to an upward position and tighten the collar. After sitting, the trainer slacks the leash. In a nutshell, the dog’s behavior by sitting down eliminates the pressure. Thus the owner loosens the tightened collar.

Types of Responses

  • Neutral operants: responses from the environment that neither increase nor decrease the probability of a behavior being repeated.

  • Reinforcers: Responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated. Reinforcers can be either positive or negative.

  • Punishers: Responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Punishment weakens behavior.


  • One can assume that giving the dog a pat on the head each time he sits next to the person is a positive reinforcement. However, this may not be the case. The dog might perceive such a gesture differently, and hence the dog can avoid sitting next to the person more often. In this example, the dog does not recognize a pat on the head as a reward. The dog hates a pat on the head. Therefore, a pat on the head becomes a positive punishment
  • Another example portrays a dog that begs for food at the dinner table by barking. To the dog, barking has just offered food. Therefore he will repeat the same trick another day to earn food from the dinner table.
  • To the owner, barking particularly at the dinner table is annoying, and he hates that. However, he achieves silence by giving the dog food and may do this often to prevent barking at the table. The two situations, stopping barking (negative) and giving the dog food to stop barking (reinforcement) presents two sides of the same coin.
  • Timing the punishment or reward is crucial. If given at an inappropriate time the technique unintentionally treats a different situation. In the example given above, if the owner instead provides the food when the dog is quiet, then the dog will increase quiet behavior.
Dog commands

The principles mentioned above also applies to the red light and green light system. If the owner commands the dog and he responds, the owner should recognize this behavior and give a reward. However, if the owner does not give a command but the dog still behaves the same, he/she (owner) should ignore such cue or command.

Repeating the same procedure consistently helps the dog to understand that a reward comes after the desired behavior and is likely to respond each time the owner gives a command.

Dog training techniques

People use the term positive to imply that they employ rewards as the key dog training method. Additionally, they use negative to refer to the obedience method based on corrections. However, the same people will use both negative and positive at a given time in the training cycle. The following section explains why.

Possibilities in dog training

The following possibilities arise during dog training

  • Positive Punishment (+P)
  • Positive Reinforcement (+R)
  • Negative Punishment (-P)
  • Negative Reinforcement (-R)

In this context, neither positive nor negative means bad or good. Positive implies giving. For instance, giving the dog a treat. On the other hand, negative relates to taking away. For example, withdrawing attention from the dog or taking away pressure on the leash. Therefore, positive can either be good or bad depending on what the person gives his/her dog. Negative in the same vein, depending on what is withdrawn or taken away from the dog.

Understanding Reinforcement and punishment

Reinforcement implies that a given behavior will happen more often, while punishment indicates that a particular action will occur less often.


Operant Conditioning explains how helping the dog (through training) to understand that actions have consequences. Technically, the animal’s behavior will attract a magnitude of consequence that can help in shaping the behavior of the animal. The pet thus makes the choice of behavior depending on the severity or how lucrative the consequences will be. If a behavior chosen comes with a reward e.g. attention, the pet will often repeat the behavior. On the other hand, the dog is likely to discard the behaviors that do not attract a reward.

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