What is Operant Conditioning Theory?

To teach your dog how to behave, you must first understand how they think and how to influence their behavior.

May 24, 2024By Maya Keith
what is operant conditioning theory

Searching for a dog trainer may yield several results, each boasting expertise in a different training method. These methods prioritize different schools of thought to create a foundation for their practices, with Operant Conditioning Theory a fueling concept for most.

Your trainer may not use this phrase outright, but many that focus on “positive reinforcement”, or “force-free training” have practices rooted in this belief.

While it may sound quite technical, we’ve broken down the basics for you in this quick guide.

The Basics of Operant Conditioning Theory

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Operant Conditioning Theory is also known as instrumental conditioning.

Operant Conditioning Theory is not unique to dog training. It was coined by American psychologist B.F. Skinner in 1937, developed from Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect.

Thorndike theorized that a behavior followed by a pleasant stimulus is likely to be repeated (and those followed by unpleasant stimulus are less likely). Skinner applied the idea of reinforcement and punishments to this idea and cultivated his Operant Conditioning Theory.

Skinner first tested this theory with his “Skinner Box” in 1948, measuring how reinforcement and punishment of a behavior (such as pulling a lever or pecking a key) affected an animal’s likelihood to repeat that behavior.

The results of these studies proved that linking an unconditioned response with a consequence, positive or negative, could either strengthen or curb that behavior. To better understand these consequences, we can break them down into four quadrants.

Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning

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Crew crew, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In his 1951 article How to Teach Animals, Skinner explains “we are almost always reinforcing the behavior of others, whether we mean to be or not”. Even when you’re not clocking in for your allotted 10 minute training session with your dog, you’re teaching them how to behave by responding to their behaviors.

In most cases, your responses fall into one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning. These are a mix of positive or negative stimuli acting as reinforcement or punishment to influence the reoccurrence of that behavior.

In more simple terms:

  • Positive means something is added.
  • Negative means something is taken away.
  • Reinforcement means the behavior is strengthened and likely to reoccur.
  • Punishment means the behavior is extinguished and unlikely to reoccur.

These positive and negative stimuli may differ from dog to dog, but the general idea remains the same. Most “positive” trainers utilize a mix of both reinforcement methods, while few professional trainers recommend any degree of punishment.

Positive Reinforcement (+R)

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Pete Bellis petebellis, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

With positive reinforcement, something pleasing is added when your dog does a desired behavior. This reward often involves:

  • Treats
  • Play
  • Attention

For example, you’re trying to teach your dog to lay down. When they lay down successfully, you give them a treat they enjoy. The reward of the treat means they’re more likely to lay down again, likely faster than they did this time.

Positive reinforcement is often the basis for teaching tricks to a new dog to ensure a solid foundation for your relationship. Training tools like clickers can facilitate a positive training experience.

Negative Reinforcement (-R)

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Removing attention is a form of negative reinforcement.

With negative reinforcement, something bad or unwanted is taken away when your dog does the desired behavior.

Physical manipulation in dog training, particularly for obedience, is an example of negative reinforcement. In these instances, the physical pressure is unwanted but removed once the dog performs the task.

For example, a person may push down on a dog’s rear when trying to teach them to sit. The dog completes the sit, eliminating the unwanted pressure, and is more likely to repeat the behavior when asked or likely to perform it faster when they feel the pressure again.

Outdated theories, such as the Dominance Theory, are entangled with negative reinforcement.

Positive Punishment (+P)

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U.S. Air Force Photo by Josh Plueger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Positive punishment means that your dog's bad behavior leads to something happening, intending to decrease their desire to repeat that behavior. Some examples of positive punishment include:

  • Physical punishment (i.e. striking your dog, yelling at your dog, raising your knee into their chest when they jump)
  • Shock collars
  • Bark collars
  • Choke chains

Many “instant solution” training tools rely on positive punishment to curb popular undesired behaviors, such as barking, by associating the behavior with that undesired response.

Even so, positive punishment has its place in many dog training programs. For example:

While training a dog to loose leash walk, they may hit the end of the lead and find themselves with uncomfortable pressure at their throat, head, or chest (depending on what type of collar or harness you’re using). The addition of the negative stimulus (pressure) is likely to decrease the unwanted behavior (pulling) in the future.

Negative Punishment (-P)

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Image Credit: Devilal, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Negative punishment, on the other hand, means that the behavior causes something good to go away. This is similar to “grounding” your dog, or putting them on restriction.

In this quadrant you are taking away those “good stimuli” listed in the first section (i.e. food, toys, play, attention). An example of this is ignoring your dog completely when they’re performing an undesirable behavior, such as barking, whining, begging, or jumping.

Because the dog does not want to lose the things it values, they are less likely to repeat that behavior.

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Image Credit: Karolina Grabowska on Pexels

A Note on Punishment

According to Simply Psychology, it’s important to note that “Punished behavior is not forgotten, it’s suppressed”.

Many trainers prefer reinforcement-based training methods because they’re straightforward and leave little question for how you want your dog to behave. While punishment-based methods may be effective at suppressing a behavior, they only darken the one pathway; your dog may make a number of bad decisions before they happen across the right one.

In this study by Ana Catarina Vieira de Castro (et. al.), dogs trained at aversive-based schools not only displayed more physical signs of stress but exhibited higher cortisol levels. Because of this, punishment-based methods can increase aggression and reactivity and instill fear that manipulates your companion’s behavior.

Operant Conditioning Theory is not the only idea behind dog-training, but it powers many schools of thought. Now that you understand the basics, you can make more informed decisions when choosing a trainer or teaching your dog on your own.

Maya Keith
By Maya Keith

Maya is a lifelong animal lover. While she switched from studying veterinary medicine to English, she continues to help by fostering animals in her community. Her permanent residents include 3 dogs, 2 cats, 5 quail, 19 chickens, and a small colony of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches.