In Operant conditioning the dog learns to make and association between a stimulus (in this context the command) a response and the consequences of that response. Put simply, it means that the dog learns what effects are usually associated with which particular behaviours and which behaviours to link to which cues. The speed at which a dog learns to make these associations will be dependent on many factors but top of the list comes the skill of the trainer.
Probably one of the biggest differences between classical conditioning and operant conditioning is one of choices. In classical conditioning the dog cannot choose to respond to a stimulus, it does so automatically. In operant conditioning we aim to teach the dog that when a choice is presented the consequences of its action will bring about a satisfactory or unsatisfactory state of affairs. When we teach a dog to jump over a hurdle we are presenting it with several choices but through good timing and with a skilful trainer the dog will quickly learn what is required. The diagram below serves to illustrate the theory behind operant conditioning used in this context.
Operant conditioning principles emphasise the consequences that are associated with a behaviour. The dog is therefore asked to make an informed judgement on how best to control the outcome of an event or series of events. Nearly all the training that we see taking place in dog training classes relies on operant conditioning or stimulus – response training. As stated earlier the success of the dog in training is almost entirely dependent on the skill of the trainer in building up the correct associations so that the dog may make the desired choice correctly and consistently. A badly timed reward or bad experience will easily elicit an increase in the undesired response as indicated in the example below.
In this instance the dog is enjoying exercising off the lead and the owner calls the dog back.
When the dog arrives back he jumps up at his owner putting wet and muddy paws all over his best white jacket!
The owner becomes very angry and chastises the dog both physically and verbally.
On the next occasion that the dog is exercised off lead and is given a command to return, because of the consequences of his actions the last time he makes an informed decision to avoid the command.
The owner immediately begins to hurl verbal abuse at the dog and adopts a threatening posture.
The dog then stays further away, not daring to venture closer. Another dog then arrives on the scene and the two dogs begin playing in total oblivion to the handler’s shouts to return.
After many repetitions the dog may well become operantly conditioned to run off and look for other dogs on the handlers command to ‘come’.