Train Your Dog: Humane Hierarchy 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.

When we look at changing a behavior in our dog, we need to look at it fairly. Enter the humane hierarchy, or what I like to break down into a three-step model for addressing problem behaviors in dogs.

This three-step model is structured in order as follows:

  1. Health
  2. Management
  3. Training

Notice that the actual training comes last, though the lack thereof in dogs is often the first complaint owners have. There is more than a handful of common problematic behaviors in dogs that can be prevented without the implementation of any training whatsoever, but by simply taking control of only the first two steps in this behavior modification checklist.

Step 1) Is Your Dog Healthy?

No amount of training can solve a health issue.

There are many examples of problem behaviors caused solely by issues of health that have nothing to do with training. Take a bladder infection for example. A bladder infection may cause a dog of any age, size, or breed, no matter what level of housebreaking achieved, to have accidents in the house due to an inability to properly control his/her bladder and pain. No amount of training can solve this issue.

When an owner has done their due diligence of raising their puppy with plenty of positive reinforcement body handling sessions and preparation for all kinds of routine handling and grooming, and suddenly their dog becomes snappy when having one or both ears handled, it could be an ear infection causing them pain. No amount of training can solve this issue.

So the first item to rule out (or address) when looking to change your dog’s behavior is, is your dog healthy?

Step 2) Management

We manage our dog’s environment, and, therefore, their behavior within it. We set our dogs up to succeed and we do not set our dogs up to fail and practice bad behaviors.

Management 101, Lesson 1: A dog is chewing on our shoes. Without any amount of training whatsoever, a 100% guaranteed method of stopping this behavior in our dog is by simply putting our shoes in a place where the dog can’t get them.

As with any other aspect of owning a dog, management requires an amount of effort and vigilance on the part of the owner.

Management 101, Lesson 2: A dog is jumping up on the counters and stealing food. The dog is being rewarded for jumping up on the counters in search of tasty treats, not by us, but by the reward of getting the food. Keeping food off of the counters will decrease and eventually stop this behavior from repeating (as it goes through a process called extinction), but this is another classic example of a common problematic behavior in dogs that can be solved with a bit of lifestyle adjustment from us. We should help our dogs to succeed in their navigation of our human world and not put potentially dangerous leftovers on the counter, for example, turkey (note: cooked bones splinter when broken and are potentially life-threatening to your dog if ingested).

Step 3) What Behaviors Do You Want?

The final step is then positive reinforcement-based operant conditioning training, and teaching our dogs what we do want in place of behaviors we don’t want, or training what dog trainers call incompatible behaviors.

An example of this is if our dog is taught to sit nicely when greeting us (they cannot be jumping all over us). The behaviors of sitting nicely and jumping up are simply incompatible.

If a dog knows what to do in situations that will get them rewarded for their efforts, they will do these behavior more often than any other behaviors that get them nothing in return. Keep in mind that dogs and humans don’t always have the same ideas of what’s rewarding and what’s punishing in a given situation. We must always be mindful of what our dogs may find rewarding for their behavior, be it good or bad, in order to grasp the big picture when it comes to changing behavior in our dogs.

So take the last example. If our dog jumped up to greet us while being met with pats and praise, it is most probable that as long as the reinforcement continues, so will the behavior. A dog in this instance may be jumping up to greet you simply because they like you! They are excited to see you! They want to be near you, and interact with you! They want you. Use your attention as your leverage. You have control over when and for what your dog will be rewarded for. Take your attention away, for example, when your dog is jumping up (either by turning your back to the dog or by removing yourself from the environment completely). This will eventually teach your jumping dog that performing such behavior will not get them the attention they seek, just don’t stop there. Help your dog learn what WILL work to get them the attention they desire by teaching them what behaviors are acceptable in the greeting ceremony (sitting nicely and allowing you to come to them and rewarding them heavily).

Complementary Reading:

Train Your Dog: Marker Training (Clicker Training) in Operant Conditioning


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