Let’s Talk Positive Reinforcement

operant conditioningBy: Melissa Kolmar, CPDT-KA

We’re going to delve a little into science today and talk about operant conditioning and positive reinforcement.

One of the major learning theories is Operant Conditioning. Operant conditioning is the relationship between a behavior and its consequence. There are four quadrants: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. Positive means to add, while negative means to remove. Reinforcement means increasing the likelihood of behavior while punishment means decreasing the likelihood of behavior. So positive reinforcement means adding something (usually food or toys!) to increase the likelihood of a dog’s behavior in the future.

In Operant Conditioning, your dog is free to engage in any behavior they choose.  As you train your dog, you manipulate the consequences of those behaviors through the use of reinforcers. For example, your dog sits when someone approaches because you have taught them that sitting when approached means cheese happens.

The fact that behavior is freely offered and not coerced, is very important in positive reinforcement. Voluntary behavior means your dog has freedom of choice and control over their actions.  It means that they can decide what to do, and what not to do.  However, if an action has a consistent and predictable outcome (cheese happens every time your dog sits when someone approaches) then their behavior will change accordingly.  So, while they are free to jump, run, stand, etc., the consequence (cheese) changes the likelihood of the behavior over time.

When your dog’s freedom to behave as they choose is directly threatened or controlled, most dogs become highly resistant and unhappy.  This sense of control is very important to our dogs.  Many dogs live lives where they are allowed very little control or choice.  They may live where everything they do is coerced or commanded.  Some people think this is the relationship we are supposed to have with dogs. Instead, I encourage you to take the time to set up a situation so that your dog is given a choice. Make sure the odds are in favor of your dog doing what you want, and reinforce their good decisions.

Get out there and positively reinforce your dog!

*Illustration by artist Lili Chin