Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning has been the training method of choice for most Labrador Retriever trainers since the 1980s. What exactly is operant conditioning and how does it help to train your Lab? Operant conditioning is the use of a behavior’s consequences to influence the behavior. Classical conditioning deals with physiological responses and operant conditioning deals with responses that are under the dog’s control.

Reinforcement and Punishment are the cornerstones of operant conditioning. Reinforcement causes a behavior to occur more frequently and punishment causes a behavior to occur less frequently. How does this look to our Lab? Positive reinforcement is a wonderful thing to a Lab! When I come to my person, I get a treat, love, strokes, play time. Life is wonderful! Negative punishment is a bummer. When I pee on the rug, they yell at me. When I chew on that wonderful shoe and my teeth feel better, they take it away. There is also Negative reinforcement. This typically is found when hunting dogs are being trained with an electronic collar. The behavior is reinforced by the removal of a bad thing. When I don’t come to him it hurts but when I come to him the hurting stops. Finally, there is Negative Reinforcement. When I don’t listen, I get choked. There are many ways to get behaviors to start and stop. When we reinforce the good things we have a happy Lab that is a joy to be around. Punishing the bad may get the behavior to stop but does not provide for a good learning environment and may result in a damaged relationship with your best friend.

To reiterate the previous points, there are four ways that operant conditioning can be introduced to our Lab.

1. Positive Reinforcement- This happens when a behavior is followed by a reward of some kind.

2. Negative Reinforcement- This happens when a behavior is followed by removal of a painful or unpleasant stimulus.

3. Positive Punishment- This happens when a behavior is followed by a painful or unpleasant stimulus.

4. Negative Punishment- This happens when a behavior is followed by removal of a pleasant stimulus.

We want a positive experience with our Lab and so, should try to keep our actions to either Positive Reinforcement or Negative Punishment. Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negatives as Bing Crosby sang in 1944.

Understanding how a dog learns and what will increase the bond between you and your Lab can be a rewarding experience for both you and your Lab.