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In our blog post, “Consistency is Key,” we touched briefly on how dogs learn. This blog post is a brief introduction on a few key concepts that are important to understanding how dogs learn and what Koru K9’s dog training philosophy is based on.

Operant vs Classical Conditioning
If you took any Psychology classes, then you’ve heard these terms before. And you’ve probably also heard about Mr. Pavlov and his dogs.

When you hear the term Classical Conditioning…think Pavlov’s Dogs. Classical conditioning is best defined as the dog understanding a simple association. In his experiment, Pavlov used a bell to call the dogs to their food. After a few repetitions of this, the dogs started to salivate in response to the bell. He had made a simple association for the dog between bell and food until the dog anticipated food at the sound of the bell. The dog makes a connection between two things because of an event occurring. Does your dog get all excited when he hears you pick up your car keys or leash? Or, in our household…the dogs know the sound of the treat jar and ice cube dispenser and come running. That’s classical conditioning at work…

When you hear the term Operant Conditioning…think consequences (good or bad). The dog engages in a behavior and then something good or bad happens. The animal is in control of this behavior (and it’s the job of the trainer to time the reinforcement when the dog offers the appropriate behavior!). For example, your dog sticks its nose in the cats face and gets a fist full or furry (punished). Or he sticks his nose into the trash and gets a bit of leftover crumbs (rewarded). This may or may not have happened in our house.

Why is it important that you know about these doggie psych terms…isn’t that what you hire the dog trainer for? Well, yes…and no. You need to realize that intentionally or unintentionally you are reinforcing behaviors. Do you pet your dog or talk softly and calmly to him or her when she freaks out on another dog? Turns out you are rewarding that behavior that you are most likely trying to avoid in the first place!

Now for the hot topic (especially here in San Francisco)…

You hear about “positive only” training methods. That sounds so nice, doesn’t it? In simple terms, positive and negative are only referring to adding or subtracting. It has nothing to do with how nice the training is. The probability of a behavior repeating is dependent on the consequences of the behavior. Those consequences are broken down two ways: Reinforcement (increases the frequency of the behavior) or Punishment (decreases the frequency of the behavior).

That means we have four consequences:

  • Positive Reinforcement – The behavior is strengthened because of a desirable consequence. For example, your dog sits and you give him a treat.
  • Negative Reinforcement – Eliminating an undesirable consequence strengthens the behavior. For example, applying upward pressure on the leash, the dog sits, and you release the pressure.
  • Negative Punishment – Withholding something weakens the particular behavior. For example, you withhold your dog’s dinner if he lunges for it, then start again. In other words, if your dog does [insert unwanted behavior here] then [insert reward here] goes away.
  • Positive Punishment – The behavior is weakened by the addition of an unpleasant consequence. For example, your dog jumps up on a person and you suppress this with a quick leash correction.

It’s our belief that if you take an extreme position in one way or the other, you will severely limit your ability to help a dog and your clients. The old school method of pure compulsion (i.e. negative reinforcement) training is just that, old school. But purely reward based training where the worst case scenario is withholding a reward shows a lack of understanding, especially in that of dogs with strong drive (your dog chasing the squirrel, showing strong interest in other dogs or people, etc.). Our goal is to teach dogs (and their owners) exactly what is expected through fair and balanced methods. We train for results. PERIOD.