Features December 2011 Issue

The Four Principles of Operant Conditioning for Dogs

[Updated August 2, 2017]

The scientific principles of operant conditioning, developed by behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner in the 1950s, apply to all creatures with a central nervous system. While the terminology initially can be confusing, if you remember the following definitions it’s really quite simple:

Positive: Means something is added.

Negative: Means something is taken away.

Reinforcement: Behavior is likely to increase or strengthen.

Punishment: Behavior is likely to decrease or extinguish.


The dog’s behavior makes something good happen. “Positive,” in behavioral terms, means something is added. “Reinforcement” means the behavior increases. When your dog sits, you feed him a treat. His behavior (sitting) made something good happen, something was added (the treat). As a result, your dog is more likely to offer to sit again, so the behavior increases. Positive trainers use positive reinforcement a lot. Example: The dog sits, he gets a treat; dog is more likely to sit again, perhaps faster.


The dog’s behavior makes something bad happen. (Positive means something is added, punishment means the behavior decreases.) Example: When your dog jumps on you you knee him hard in the chest. He gets off. His behavior (jumping up) made something bad happen; something was added (your knee in his chest). As a result, your dog is more likely to think twice before jumping on you again. “Positive trainers” do not use positive punishment very much, if at all.


The dog’s behavior makes something good go away. (Negative = something is taken away; punishment = the behavior decreases.) When your dog jumps up, you turn your back and step away. His behavior (jumping) made something good (your attention) go away. Positive trainers use negative punishment as a mild negative consequence for unwanted behavior.


The dog’s behavior makes something bad go away. (Negative means something is taken away; reinforcement increases the behavior.) Example: A trainer wants a dog who is lying down to sit. He pulls the dog’s leash upward, tightening the collar. When the dog sits up, the trainer slacks the leash. The dog’s behavior (sitting) makes the bad thing (the tightened collar) go away.  Positive trainers may use a limited amount of negative reinforcement in the form of mild physical pressure, or sub-threshold presentation of an aversive stimulus (CAT).

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