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Operant conditioning is a “buzz word” in the animal training world, but what exactly does it mean?
It’s fairly straightforward to understand. Operant conditioning is a way of training dogs using positive and negative consequences for their behavior.
Dogs respond to positive rewards in a positive way, by continuing to perform that behavior. If a behavior is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated. If your dog gets a yummy treat when he sits, he’s more likely to keep sitting.
There are two ways of stopping an unwanted behavior. The first,is punishment. Punishment may not actually stop your dog doing what you don’t want them to. They may perceive punishment as aggression and they may retaliate, or they may cower and become afraid of you. Either way, it adversely affects your relationship with your dog.
The other problem with punishment is that the timing has to be perfect. If you punish your dog at the wrong time, he won’t recognize the behavior you are trying to reduce, and instead may stop him doing something else completely.
The second way of stopping bad behavior is to ignore it. Theoretically, any behavior that isn’t rewarded, doesn’t continue. This can be very hard for us as dog owners to put up with, especially when the bad behavior is very likely to worsen before it gets better!
Operant conditioning works with any species. Dolphins in marine parks are taught to jump higher by rewarding them with a fish when they perform an extra high leap. These animals aren’t attached to their handler by a leash, so it’s very hard to punish them. In spite of this, operant conditioning still works very well in teaching them new behaviors. This makes many people question whether or not punishment is necessary at all.
In Summary – As we learn more about dog behavior, we develop better ways of communicating with them about what we want them to do. Operant conditioning helps them learn more effectively so they understand your expectations sooner.
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