The Four Principles of Operant Conditioning for Dogs


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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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.