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Dogs are conditioned to learn what works

The greatest training truth that you must accept to be successful in communicating with your dog is that dogs do what works. Depending on which side of the leash you are on, it could be seen as your dog manipulating a situation or it could be you working the rules of the game. It is all in what you do, or more often than not what you do not do, that sends a firm and kind message back to Fido about what works.

Quadrants of operant conditioning

Demonstrations of force-free training to teach a dog "what works". See this YouTube video: Impulse control - teaching the dog calm and polite manners including lessons like sit makes things happen, four paws on the floor for polite greeting and how to do food bowl puppetry.

Operant conditioning at work

The three examples presented in the video work by way of using two of the four quadrants of operant conditioning. When using operant conditioning it is important that you put out of your head the idea of “good” or “bad”. Instead think it as math with positive being “adding stuff” and negative being “taking away or delaying stuff” the dog wants.

  1. Negative punishment (P-) works by delaying things that the dog really wants. Dogs find it rewarding to get access to food, get out of a crate, get your attention or continuing to enjoy a walk. When a dog does behaviors such as jumping up to get food, whining and pacing to get out of a crate, nips, jumps or barks to get your attention or pulls on leash we apply negative punishment (P-) to the situation to decrease the behavior we don’t like and in turn create a situation where the dog begins to do things that we do like. At that point we can then apply positive reinforcement (R+).
  1. Positive Reinforcement (R+) works to increase a behavior that we like and also is a good way to maintain a behavior we like. This means we add good stuff that the dog finds rewarding such as food, praise and pets and getting quick access to people, places and things. Mind that the idea of what is rewarding is all in the mind of the dog. You could have one dog that really like playing in the sprinkler and water spray while another dog sees a garden hose run and runs for the hills.

Dog learning is cyclical

Life is not lived in a vacuum and so it is with learning. Environmental triggers and stressors, working in a safe, familiar environment vs. a location filled with new smells, sights and sounds and a dog’s emotional and physical health are just a few factors to consider when working with your dog on new skills.

It is far better to make it a practice to recognize and reward polite behavior your dog is already offering you and positively reinforce that with a ‘Good boy!’ and a treat to keep the good vibes going.

Should your pet fall into some poor habits you have the tools of operant conditioning to help. You can move from poor behavior (pulling on leash) where you would apply negative punishment and stop the walk and delay his gratification of moving on and create the opportunity to apply positive reinforcement to your dog with praise and treats when he finally steps back, looks at you and offers you a slack in the leash. That relaxed leash shows you that Fido understands what works.

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