Train Your Dog: Positive Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning

Updated on October 30, 2017
Miranda Hebert profile image

Miranda is a professional dog training instructor and has been actively training dogs for competition and companionship for over 12 years.

You’ve heard about positive reinforcement in relation to dog training before. Dog trainers proclaim to use "positive reinforcement," a science-based technique. What does it all mean? Here we will explore the science of positive reinforcement-based operant conditioning as it relates to dog training.

Positive reinforcement refers to the quadrant in operant conditioning learning theory that is "positive" + "reinforcement."

Positive in the technical context means solely to add; in the same context, negative means to remove.

Reinforcement, in this context, means something that is going to increase the likelihood of a behavior repeating in the future.

Positive reinforcement, in this context, really just means adding something to increase the likelihood of a behavior repeating in the future.

Learning by Association and Consequence

All dogs want good things to happen. When behaviors have good consequences, it increases the likelihood that the behavior will repeat in the future. When behaviors have bad consequences, it decreases the likelihood that the behavior will repeat in the future.

Example: When a young student receives an "A" on their assignment, and their guardian gives them a $20 bill for their hard work, this is a good consequence, one that may encourage the young student to try hard for another "A" in the future. When another young student receives an "F" on their assignment, their guardian punishes this outcome of behavior by revoking privileges such as the use of the television or of a cellular phone. This is a bad consequence, one that may help to prevent the same outcome of behavior in the future.

How Do We Define Punishment in This Context?

Punishment, in this context, simply means something that is going to decrease the likelihood of a behavior repeating in the future.

Punishment does NOT inherently mean:

  • Anything physically aversive (hitting in any form, choke chains, and prong collars are all examples of physically aversive punishment)
  • That it is frightening to the dog
  • Things that we as people consider punishing

Punishment in this context means that it works. If a punishment is not working to decrease the likelihood of a behavior, then it is not, in this context, punishment.

Complementary Reading:

Train Your Dog: Reinforcement and Punishment in Operant Conditioning


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