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Operant Conditioning Dog Training – How to Correct Unwanted Behavior

Operant Conditioning Quadrant

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Why should you know about using operant conditioning when training your dog? Operant conditioning is a popular learning method backed up by decades of research. The concept is simple – reinforced (rewarded) behavior will likely occur again, while punished behaviors are less likely to happen in the future due to unpleasant associations. In dog training, the consequences of a dog’s behavior (whether reinforced or punished) will ultimately determine the likelihood of said behavior being repeated.

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Operant Conditioning: Controlling the Consequences of Your Dog’s Actions to Change Its Behavior

Operant Conditioning Quadrant

Operant conditioning is a way to shape your dog’s behavior using Reinforcements (which increase behavior frequency) or Punishments (which decrease behavior frequency), by either adding something (Positive) or removing something (Negative) from the dog’s environment.

There are four quadrants or methods of operant conditioning: Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Punishment, and Negative Punishment. To choose the best approach for you and your dog, it’s essential to understand what makes each quadrant unique. Let’s take a closer look!

What is Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training?

Positive reinforcement involves giving your dog something that it desires or enjoys (such as treats or verbal praise) when it performs a targeted behavior. This pleasant result increases the chances that your dog will repeat the behavior in the future.

Positive Reinforcement Examples

Positive Reinforcement Example
Graphic by Lili
  • Using treats to teach a dog to sit. The trainer gives the “sit” command and offers a treat when the dog successfully sits. Over time, the treat can be phased out and replaced with praise or affection as a reward for good behavior.
  • Ignoring or redirecting excessive barking, while reinforcing the desired behavior (sitting calmly and quietly, for instance) with a treat or verbal praise

Positive reinforcement training can also be used to teach more advanced tricks and tasks, such as retrieving objects or performing agility courses. Patience and consistency are crucial to dog training success – you can gradually shape the desired behavior through small rewards and build up to more complex tasks.

Successful positive reinforcement training happens when there’s a supportive relationship between a trainer and the dog. By focusing on reinforcing desirable behaviors and ignoring undesirable ones (rather than using fear or punishment to train a dog), positive reinforcement results in a happier, better-behaved pet and a stronger bond with its owner. No wonder the ASPCA recommends this method over any other quadrant!

What is Negative Reinforcement in Dog Training?

Negative reinforcement involves the removal of an unpleasant stimulus in response to the desired behavior, thereby increasing the likelihood of repetition. While not as popular as positive reinforcement training, negative reinforcement can be an effective training tool when used correctly by a certified dog trainer.

Negative Reinforcement Examples

Negative Reinforcement Example
Graphic by Lili
  • Using a leash and collar to teach the “heel” command. The trainer applies pressure on the leash and collar until the dog moves into the correct position beside them. As soon as the dog is in the correct position, the pressure is released. Over time, the dog learns that moving into the correct position will result in the removal of pressure on its neck, reinforcing the behavior.
  • Addressing behavioral problems such as jumping or barking. The trainer applies an aversive stimulus (such as a low, continuous shock or vibration from an electric collar) until the undesired behavior stops. Only when the dog sits quietly will the trainer remove the shock.

Warning: It is critical to respond immediately to the undesired behavior and to avoid any aversive stimuli that are overly harsh or threatening to your dog. Negative reinforcement, when used inappropriately, can lead to increased fear, anxiety, distrust, and even aggression.

What is Positive Punishment in Dog Training?

Positive punishment refers to the introduction of aversive stimuli to reduce or stop a behavior. In other words, the trainer adds an unpleasant response to a specific behavior to discourage it from happening again.

Positive Punishment Examples

Positive Punishment Example
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  • Using a spray bottle to correct barking. When a dog barks, the trainer immediately squirts the dog with a water bottle – the sudden, unpleasant sensation discourages the dog from barking.
  • Using a shock collar to correct jumping. When the dog jumps on you or your visitors, you immediately deliver a shock via the electric collar, teaching your dog that jumping results in an unpleasant experience.

Positive Punishment doesn’t address the underlying causes of behavior and can’t teach appropriate alternative behaviors – for these reasons and many others, Positive Reinforcement is recommended instead.

Warning: Positive punishment can be effective in quickly stopping undesirable behaviors, but it should be used with caution as it can cause fear and aggression in dogs. Carefully consider whether the potential negative effects outweigh the benefits before training your dog using positive punishment.

What is Negative Punishment in Dog Training?

Negative Punishment Stop Playing

Negative punishment training involves taking away something the dog wants to decrease the likelihood of a certain behavior occurring again. Not only a popular choice for dog training, negative punishment is also commonly used as a parenting technique. 

For example, if a child gets into trouble at school or disobeys her mother, the parent may take away a favorite toy as punishment, reducing the likelihood of the child repeating said behavior.

One benefit of training with negative punishment is that it does not rely on fear or pain to modify behavior. A lack of fear or pain can lead to a more confident and relaxed dog that is willing to engage in new situations and learning experiences. Additionally, negative punishment can be an effective tool for addressing specific unwanted behaviors without changing a dog’s overall demeanor or personality.

When using negative punishment, it’s important to ensure that your pet knows that you are punishing him for specific behavior. Dog trainers use a vocal marker to signal what your pet did wrong before taking away the desired object. It’s critical to use the same vocal cue each time so that your dog can begin to understand what is happening. This type of cue is often referred to as a “No Reward Marker,” and common examples include the use of the words “no” or “try again.”

Negative Punishment Examples

Negative Punishment Example
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  • Dog bites at your hands while playing. Though he might not break your skin, play-biting behavior is undesirable and needs to be stopped. Using negative punishment, you would say your vocal cue (“no!”) immediately, and turn your back to the dog or walk away. This inattention signals to your dog that he did something wrong and, as a result, you are taking away playtime.
Dog loves toy

Warning: Keep in mind, for negative punishment to be effective, the removed item or experience must be of high value to your dog – he’s not likely to respond to his toys being taken away if he doesn’t care about them in the first place!

How Do YOU Use Operant Conditioning in Training?

Operant conditioning provides a powerful set of dog training methods that can be very successful when used correctly. It’s important to understand the different quadrants and how they work to select the best-combined approach for you and your pet. With patience, consistency, and these guidelines in mind, you’re on your way to a well-trained companion!

How have you used operant conditioning to train your pup? What tips would you add? Let us know in the comments below!


  • Morgan Messick

    Morgan Messick is a content creator for Dog Training Newbie, a website that is all about dog training tips, techniques, news, and more. Morgan has two dogs, three cats, and a lovely wife who support her passion for writing. Morgan loves reading murder mystery novels and listening to true crime podcasts in her spare time. She is also passionate about supporting small businesses by creating dynamic content that customers want to see.

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Morgan Messick

Morgan is a content creator for Dog Training Newbie, a website that is all about dog training tips, techniques, news, and more. Morgan has two dogs, three cats, and a lovely wife who support her passion for writing.

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