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Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are methods of learning that professional dog trainers use to shape and modify behavior.

But what do “classical conditioning” and “operant conditioning” actually mean? How are the two methods applied in dog training? How do they differ from each other?

In this post, we’ve set out to answer those questions, and provide you with real-world examples, so you understand both types of conditioning and how they impact how your dog learns.

What is classical conditioning in dog training?

Simply put, classical conditioning is learning by association. In dog training, classical conditioning is a behavior modification method that involves presenting two stimuli together repeatedly until they’re linked in a dog’s mind.

You’ve likely heard of Pavlov’s dog. That’s where classical conditioning (or Pavlovian conditioning) was born.

During Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiments with dogs, he discovered that pairing two stimuli together over and over creates a learned association for the dog.

For example, you start to ring a bell every time you give your dog their favorite treat. Initially, the sound of the bell doesn’t mean much to them. However, after repeatedly pairing the bell with the treat, your dog begins to associate that bell with food and salivate at the sound of it—even if there’s no treat in sight.

Your dog has developed an involuntary response to frequently paired stimuli (the bell and the treat) through a learned association.

Classical conditioning plays an essential role in shaping your dog’s behavior—both good behavior and bad behavior.

Your dog is learning by association constantly, every day, with or without you realizing it. This means that dog trainers can use classical conditioning to instill desired behaviors, as well as tackle fears and anxieties. However, it also means your dog can develop undesired behaviors if you aren’t diligent.

That’s why we encourage owners to use every moment with their dog as an opportunity to train and reinforce behaviors. Dog training doesn’t have a beginning and an end, or only happens when you want it to.

Your dog is learning all the time and training is a life-long process.

What are examples of classical conditioning?

Over time, your dog begins to make learned associations based on what’s happening around them every day. That’s classical conditioning.

Here are three real-world examples of how classical conditioning plays a part in shaping the behavior of dogs.

  1. Grabbing the leash — This is an example almost all dog owners are familiar with: your dog begins to associate you picking up their leash with going for a walk. Before long, they’re sitting at the door, ready for a walk, any time you reach for the leash.
  2. Bringing out the food bowl — Similar to the ringing bell example above, your dog won’t have much connection to their food bowl at first. That will be a much different story once they start to associate that bowl with mealtime.
  3. Taking trips to the vet — This is the flip side of classical conditioning. After their first few visits to the vet, your dog could associate these trips with bad feelings and begin demonstrating fear and anxiety anytime they get in your vehicle or arrive at the vet.

What is operant conditioning in dog training?

Operant conditioning is a behavior modification method that uses rewards and consequences to encourage desired behaviors and discourage undesired ones.

Unlike classical conditioning, which focuses on associations between stimuli (leash means walk or bowl means food), operant conditioning helps dogs learn by associating a particular behavior with a reward or consequence.

Using operant conditioning, dogs are taught which behaviors to repeat based on reinforcement or punishment. Behavior that is reinforced will increase the likelihood of it repeating, while behavior that is punished will decrease that likelihood.

This is where the four quadrants of dog training come in. Balanced dog trainers use the four quadrants to teach dogs what behaviors are expected of them (and what behaviors are not). With operant conditioning, trainers can communicate effectively with the dogs and build a strong bond through mutual understanding.

Using a combination of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment, dog trainers can find the perfect balance of quadrants to teach and communicate with any dog to shape and modify their behavior.

The most important thing to remember about operant training is that the reward or consequence must be meaningful to the dog.

What humans think is a reward or consequence might not be to our dogs. For example, there are dogs who don’t enjoy being petted on the head. If you pet your dog on the head as an intended reward and your dog doesn’t like it, this is actually a consequence in your dog’s mind.

What are examples of operant conditioning?

The opportunities to train your dog with operant conditioning and the four quadrants are endless. Every interaction with your dog is a chance to train using operant conditioning.

Here are four real-world examples of operant conditioning in the context of each of the four quadrants:

  1. Positive Reinforcement — Rewarding your dog with a treat after they follow a “Sit” command (adding something to increase the likelihood of a behavior).
  2. Negative Reinforcement — Releasing directional leash pressure when your dog responds to recall (taking something away to increase the likelihood of a behavior).
  3. Negative Punishment — Withholding a treat when your dog doesn’t obey a “Place” command (taking something away to decrease the likelihood of a behavior).
  4. Positive Punishment — Using a prong collar correction after your dog breaks their “Place” command (adding something to decrease the likelihood of a behavior).

Classical conditioning vs operant conditioning: What are the differences?

What are the differences between classical conditioning and operant conditioning? The biggest difference is that one method focuses on involuntary responses while the other puts an emphasis on voluntary behavior.

The use of classical conditioning creates an involuntary response to the frequent pairing of two stimuli, like your dog associating its leash with a walk and galloping to the door whenever you bring it out.

On the other hand, operant conditioning teaches your dog to volunteer behaviors that are rewarded and steer clear of behaviors that have consequences, like sitting for a treat instead of ignoring your command and ending up with no treat.

For dog owners, it’s important to understand classical and operant conditioning and how you can effectively use these learning methods. That’s where Koru K9 can help. Reach out today to start building a healthier relationship with your dog.