Saturday, 16 October 2021

Operant Conditioning

(A rather more technical piece than I usually publish on here. This is a piece of coursework I produced for a Level 6 Diploma in Applied Canine Behaviour Management from The DoGenius and I'm so pleased with it that I wanted to share it 😊)

It is a perhaps sad truth that the modern domestic dog lives their life in a world largely designed for the convenience of its human inhabitants. Living in close proximity with humans brings behavioural requirements for those dogs to continue living somewhat harmoniously alongside the humans. This means that most humans desire a way to control the behaviours that the dogs around them display.

‘Operant conditioning is a science that comes complete with a difficult body of knowledge to master and apply with skill,’ (Burch and Bailey, 1999. p. 46)


One way in which behaviours can be increased or decreased systematically is by the provision of consequences that follow the behaviour. Operant learning is a form of conditioning, defined as ‘a behaviour change process wherein behaviours become more or less likely to occur across subsequent occasions due to the consequences that the behaviours have generated,’ (O’Heare, 2017. p. 54). The concept of operant conditioning received its first full definition in the work of B.F. Skinner, specifically in his book titled ‘The Behaviour of Organisms’ (Skinner, 1991). Skinner extended the work undertaken by Edward Thorndike, taking his Law of Effect that demonstrated food outside of a box encouraged a cat placed inside of the box to escape quicker (Thorndike, 1927).

Skinner added the word reinforcement to describe one of the factors that may affect whether a particular behaviour occurs on future occasions, the other being punishment. ‘Reinforcement occurs when a behaviour, followed by a consequent stimulus, is strengthened or becomes more likely to occur again,’ (Burch and Bailey, 1999. p.27). Punishment works in the opposite direction meaning that if the consequence of a behaviour is the application of a punisher, the behaviour is less likely to occur again in a similar situation (Burch and Bailey, 1999).

As well as these terms reinforcement and punishment, the principles of operant behaviour are also described using the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ (Burch and Bailey, 1999). Often misunderstood as having positive or negative effects, in the context of operant conditioning the words mean adding in a stimulus (positive) or removing a stimulus (negative) to affect the likelihood of behavioural repetition.

The selections of positive or negative, reinforcement or punishment combine to give four options available for modification of behaviour: positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement and negative punishment (Burch and Bailey, 1999). Often, dog training professionals may refer to these four different outcomes as the four quadrants of operant conditioning (Starling et al., 2013). To sum up these options briefly: 

  • Positive reinforcement results in a favourable consequent stimulus occurring, increasing the likelihood of behaviour repetition. In this quadrant, the dog receives something that they like and value on performing the desired behaviour. Most often, this comes in the form of food, but may also be a toy, a game, or human attention. “The evocative stimulus evokes the behaviour because of a history of reinforcement associated with the behaviour occurring immediately following that stimulus,” (O’Heare, 2017. p. 45).
  • Positive punishment results in an unfavourable consequent stimulus occurring, decreasing the likelihood of behaviour repetition. This includes aversive measures such as shouting, the use of shock, prong, or choke collars, leash ‘corrections’, and physically striking a dog.
  • Negative reinforcement results in the removal of an unfavourable stimulus, increasing the likelihood of behaviour repetition. In this category, we can include the stopping of shock when the desired behaviour occurs, or the lessening of pain from a prong or choke collar when the dog stops pulling on the leash, for example. This utilises escape conditioning or avoidance conditioning (Burch and Bailey, 1999).
  • Negative punishment results in the removal of a favourable stimulus, decreasing the likelihood of behaviour repetition. Examples include the removal of a toy or food item, or the removal of attention from a favoured human.


From an ethical standpoint, these quadrants can be organised into levels of appropriateness for use and their impacts on the welfare of the dog (Vieira de Castro et al., 2020). Of the quadrants listed above, positive reinforcement is the most ethically sound, as it does not involve any stimuli that the dog may find aversive. Another important note is that the dog is the individual who decides whether a particular stimulus is aversive or not (Burch and Bailey, 1999), and the dog decides how reinforcing any particular stimulus is to them (Vicars, Miguel and Sobie, 2014). If the presentation of that stimulus does not result in the strengthening of the behaviour, it is not reinforcing.


Finn's awaiting reinforcement delivery face 😍

Proponents of so-called ‘balanced’ training claim that to be effective trainers, all of the quadrants should be utilised. A study compared the use of one aversive training device, the electric shock collar, to the performance of positive reinforcement based trainers (China, Mills and Cooper, 2020). The study utilised three groups of dogs and trainers. One group trained the dogs using electric shock collars. A control group of dogs (control group one) was trained by the electric collar trainers but without shock collars. A second control group of dogs trained with positive reinforcement based trainers. Control group one used more hand and lead signals (including negative reinforcement methods such as lead pressure) than the electric collared group, while control group two used the least. The second control group also had the shortest latency to respond to cues, and a higher obedient response proportion to a single cue than the other groups. Given that the results of the study indicate electric shock collars perform at best no better than positive reinforcement, the ethical considerations of using aversive measures indicate that canine training professionals should utilise positive reinforcement.

Reinforcers used for positive reinforcement fall into two categories (O’Heare, 2017). Primary reinforcers are those linked to biological imperatives, such as food and mating opportunities for example. Other examples of primary reinforcers can include the opportunity to carry out and complete specific behaviour patterns, such as modal action patterns (Burch and Bailey, 1999). Secondary reinforcers are also known as conditioned reinforcers (Burch and Bailey, 1999), as their function as reinforcers requires some conditioning to take place. Common examples of secondary reinforcers include verbal praise and using marker sounds such as a particular word or a clicker. The timing of marking a behaviour is vital to ensure that the dog is not stopped from fully showing the behaviour if it comes too soon, or offering too many behaviours if it is marked too late. The marker must be ‘charged’ so that the dog understands what the marker means before use for training. To do this, the trainer would click or say the chosen marker word and immediately give the dog a reward. Through the process of associating these marker sounds with a primary reinforcer, most typically a food reward or praise and attention from the human, the formerly neutral stimulus becomes conditioned and functions as an indicator that the behaviour occurring at the exact moment the marker sound occurs is a desired behaviour and something that the dog values will appear imminently.

Consequences can be intrinsic or extrinsic (O’Heare, 2017). Intrinsic consequences are those generated directly by the behaviour, often within the dog’s body. Chasing prey can allow a dog to complete a modal action pattern, a natural and instinctive chain of movements that for some dogs may be an intrinsic reinforcer. The act of chasing prey can provide, if the dog captures the prey, a primary reinforcer of a meal for the dog. Extrinsic consequences are provided by another, and may be referred to as socially mediated (O’Heare, 2017). The provision of food, a toy, or praise from a human are common extrinsic consequences.


Within positive reinforcement training, there are a number of techniques available to train dogs in specific behaviours.

Luring involves taking behaviours the dog offers naturally or those already trained and using food rewards to lure the dog into altering the behaviour (Hiby, Rooney and Bradshaw, 2004). Luring is a common method used to train puppies to sit for example, by holding a food reward in front of their nose and lifting up and back over their head until their hind end lowers to the ground.

Capturing is marking and rewarding behaviours that the dog offers naturally when they occur (O’Heare, 2017). This is very low stress for the dog, which is an advantage, but depends on the behaviour being something natural that the dog offers.

Shaping involves taking a previously trained behaviour or one that the dog offers naturally and withholding reinforcement until the dog makes a movement that progresses towards a desired end behaviour (Burch and Bailey, 1999; O’Heare, 2017). The difference between the starting behaviour and final behaviour is broken down into a series of small steps. Once the dog has become proficient at each increased step, the reinforcement is withheld once more until the dog offers a behaviour closer to the desired result.

Another operant conditioning process is extinction. “Extinction occurs when a behaviour that has been previously reinforced is no longer reinforced, and the result is that the behaviour no longer occurs,” (Burch and Bailey, 1999. p. 49). The process can occur deliberately, with reinforcement consistently withheld following the behaviour’s demonstration, or accidentally when the rate of reinforcement is not high enough to maintain the strength of the behaviour. Most often thought of as withholding of the pleasant consequence of positive reinforcement, extinction could also be achieved through the withholding of negative reinforcement. Instead of not providing the food reward following the behaviour, in negative reinforcement the unpleasant stimulus is not removed as a consequence of the behaviour occurring.

When utilising extinction as a process, the behaviour strengthen and become more frequent for a period in an extinction burst (Burch and Bailey, 1999). Although an extinction burst may be difficult to tolerate if no reinforcement takes place the extinction burst will be short lived. If reinforcement does occur during an extinction burst, further attempts at extinction may be less likely to succeed, as intermittently reinforced behaviours are more resistant to extinction. In some cases after a period of a particular behaviour not being demonstrated that behaviour will start being shown again in spontaneous recovery (Burch and Bailey, 1999). If no reinforcement takes place, the behaviour should soon disappear once more.


Even the use of the most ethical of the operant processes raises questions on how much we should be manipulating canine behaviour. The ethics surrounding the entire concept of keeping companion animals is beginning to come under question (Bekoff, 2018) and this questioning of ethics can move through every factor involved in caring for and living with companion animals, including dogs. Who is the training or behaviour modification designed to benefit? If a dog is demonstrating normal, natural dog behaviour that is inconvenient to the people around them, does that constitute ‘bad’ behaviour? There is an argument existing that there is no good or bad behaviour when it comes to dogs, only behaviour and to change those behaviours purely for human convenience is not necessarily having the best interests of the dog central.

Another ethical consideration is whether what we are doing with dogs during training and behaviour modification is coercion and, if so, should we be using these methods at all. The dictionary definition of coerce is to ‘persuade an unwilling person to do something by force or threats’ (Waite, 2012. p.133). It is simple to see how this description may apply to positive punishment, as the dog tries to avoid the unpleasant stimulus, and negative reinforcement as the dog tries to escape the negative stimulus, by performing the desired behaviour. Negative punishment, although not involving physical pain for the dog, carries a threat of removal of something the dog values.

Positive reinforcement carries no connection with a threat as the desired result produces something the dog desires. Although the threat is not present, the pleasant consequence still functions as a persuader. The definition of operant conditioning is that it shapes behaviour due to consequences that follow the behaviour. To use operant conditioning for the purpose of reinforcing or reducing a behaviour we manipulate those consequences to influence the choices that the dog makes, which perhaps means we need to consider carefully the behaviours we require from the dogs around us.


Reference list:

Bekoff, M. (2018). Canine confidential: why dogs do what they do. Chicago: The University Of Chicago Press.

Burch, M. and Bailey, J., 1999. How Dogs Learn. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

China, L., Mills, D.S. and Cooper, J.J. (2020). Efficacy of Dog Training With and Without Remote Electronic Collars vs. a Focus on Positive Reinforcement. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 7.

Hiby, E. F., Rooney, N. J., & Bradshaw, J. W. S. (2004). Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare, 13(1), 63–69.

O’Heare. J., 2017. Science and Technology of Dog Training, (2nd Edition). Ottawa: BehaveTech Publishing.

Skinner, B.F. (1991). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis. Acton, Massachusetts: Copley Publishing Group.

Starling, M., Branson, N., Cody, D. and McGreevy, P. (2013). Conceptualising the Impact of Arousal and Affective State on Training Outcomes of Operant Conditioning. Animals, 3(2), pp.300–317.

Thorndike, E.L. (1927). The Law of Effect. The American Journal of Psychology, 39(1/4), p.212.

Vicars, S.M., Miguel, C.F. and Sobie, J.L. (2014). Assessing preference and reinforcer effectiveness in dogs. Behavioural Processes, 103, pp.75–83.

Vieira de Castro, A.C., Fuchs, D., Morello, G.M., Pastur, S., de Sousa, L. and Olsson, I.A.S. (2020). Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. PLOS ONE, 15(12), p.e0225023.

Waite, M. (2012). Paperback Oxford English dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sunday, 26 September 2021

Dreams vs Priorities

Some may have noticed that an entry has disappeared. Due to things that have happened which have been really upsetting the last article I wrote was removed. I’ve spoken before about the fact that living with a complex and sensitive dog can need a large amount of acceptance. Recent events added further highlight to that. There may be things we have to admit we can't ever do while sharing our lives with these special dogs. This is still a really sore subject for me at the moment but there is a lesson in it and so I’m going to share what happened. 

Thursday, 26 August 2021

We Need to Stop Talking About 'Behaviour Problems'


How often do we hear dog guardians and the people connected with them say things like ‘Can you fix my dog’s behaviour problem?’ or ‘Can you stop our dog’s bad behaviour?’ There are issues with questions like these.

Thinking of situations as arising from a dog being ‘bad’ or doing something wrong places blame on the dog, which is not fair. This kind of question, this way of thinking, also approaches the question from entirely the wrong angle. It focuses on trying to work out how we can change the dog, rather than changing the environment or the situation to be the best fit for everyone, and meet the dog’s needs.

Because we all really want the same thing - happy dogs!

The very first thing we need to consider is what the function of behaviour actually is, what it’s for, what it does.

Monday, 2 August 2021

Our Most Important Responsibility to Our Dogs

If asked, I suspect most people could come up with a list of responsibilities that we have for the dogs in our care. This list will probably include:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Exercise
  • Mental stimulation
  • Health care
  • A place to rest comfortably
  • Treat them with kindness and empathy

For me, all of these things come down to one central concept: our responsibility to our dogs (and any other animals in our care) is to make them feel safe. We can do this by fulfilling their needs, both in terms of things they must not be exposed to and ensuring they have access to what they need to live a happy, healthy, and comfortable life. By doing this, ensuring they feel contented and comfortable, we proved our dogs with the huge added benefit of feeling secure and safe.

What Are a Dog's Needs?

So what are the things that our dogs need?

In human psychology, needs are often represented in a pyramid made up of the headings from Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs (although the pyramid itself never appeared in Maslow's work). The pyramid construct works in such a way that the basic needs must be met before progression can occur towards the top of the pyramid.


  • Physiological needs: food, water, air, shelter, sleep. The essentials for life.
  • Safety needs: physical and emotional safety, a sense of security
  • Belonging and love needs: a social species needs relationships, connections with family and friends.
  • Esteem needs: respect, self-esteem, sense of self-worth
  • Self-actualisation: achieving potential, becoming what they want to be.

Linda Michaels, a leading member of the force free training community, reworked this hierarchy to apply to dogs. In the pyramid she created, the levels move down the pyramid as follows:

  • Cognitive needs: choice, novelty, and problem-solving opportunities.
  • Force free training needs: kind and ethical management and learning.
  • Social needs: social bonding with both other dogs and people (although I would say bear in mind that different dogs will have differing levels of social skills and many dogs are dog selective) and play.
  • Emotional needs: security, love, trust, and consistency.
  • Biological needs: good nutrition, water, air, shelter, exercise, sleep, and veterinary care.

The Five Freedoms

Arising from a UK Government report on livestock husbandry and formalised into their recognisable form in a 1979 UK Farm Animal Welfare Council press statement, these outline five aspects of animal welfare that are under the control of the humans caring for those animals. They have been adopted by many organisations, including the RSPCA and ASPCA, and professionals such as veterinary surgeons, and provide an easy to remember and understand guide to ensuring the welfare of animals in our care.

The five freedoms, which cover all of an animal’s basic needs, are:

  • Freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition. This does not just mean making sure that your dog has food to eat. It means ensuring that your dog receives good quality nutrition, that you know what is in your dog’s food and that the ingredients in it are suitable and able to be utilised. A dog can consume plenty of food and still be suffering from malnutrition if the diet is of poor quality or doesn’t contain available nutrients in the right amounts. Poor diet can stress the dog’s system.
  • Freedom from discomfort. Many dogs are stoic, very good at not showing discomfort. For this reason, it is very important that dog guardians make sure that they are doing everything they can to make sure nothing in their dogs’ lives could be causing discomfort, and to take action if something is causing a problem for the dog. This is particularly important with mental discomfort, which is even more difficult to see.
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease. This measure is largely preventive, as regular check-ups will help to prevent disease, and manage pain. Complementary therapies such as hydrotherapy and canine massage can also help with pain and keep the body in a good condition to help avoid pain and injury. Completing the holistic approach to this freedom is the important proper nutrition, including supplementation if required.
  • Freedom to express normal behaviours. Modern society places many demands on dogs and their behaviours. It is vitally important to let our dogs be dogs. Dogs need to bark, run, dig and play and it is up to dog guardians to provide appropriate circumstances to let them do that. A dog that doesn’t get time to bounce around and chew something tasty and then have a nice nap is going to be a stressed dog as due to the suppression of their natural behaviours.
  • Freedom from fear and distress. The things that can cause these feelings are wide and varied between dogs and sometimes between days, depending on how the dog is feeling. The best thing we can do to ensure dogs around us have this freedom is learn to understand how our dogs are communicating with us, and to recognise when they are showing signs of stress of being scared. We can also try to teach them to feel less scared by training and enrichment activities to give them confidence and positive alternatives, increasing their confidence and resilience.

The Five Domains

While the five freedoms have provided a useful shorthand explaining the basics of what we must ensure our dogs don’t have to deal with, they do have limitations. The freedoms only deal with negatives, things we must make sure our dogs don't experience. They make no recognition of how positive factors can also influence the lives of dogs. The five domains model has rectified this and the domains are under constant review and updating.

The five domains in their current form are:

  • Nutrition. This includes providing the correct amount of quality, nutritious and varied foodstuffs and access to plenty of fresh clean water.
  • Physical Environment. Provide suitable shade or shelter, fresh air, comfortable levels of noise and light, enough room for the dog to move around and enough comfortable resting places so they can get enough sleep or rest.
  • Health. This covers all aspects of health, from maintenance of ideal body condition and fitness levels to injury, physical impairment, disease and toxins.
  • Behavioural Interactions. Interactions with the environment, other dogs, and humans. Providing dogs with novel and varying experiences in their environment and allowing them to explore is so important for them. Appropriate interactions with other animals and humans (within the scope of the individual dog’s tolerances and preferences) is also important.
  • Mental State. All of the above have an effect on the dog, combining to dictate their mental state. Awareness of our dogs’ mental states is vital in considering their welfare. I have written before about the importance of considering canine emotions, as it really is a central part of being the best guardians, the best dog people that we can be.

For more information on the five domains model, and its current up to date form as of writing this article, read the open access paper here.

Ensuring That We Meet These Needs

Looking at those lists of officially termed factors we must avoid or provide might seem a little overwhelming, but good dog guardians are already providing their dogs with the things they need to feel happy, healthy and safe. Have a look at this final list written in ordinary language. 

  • Good quality food and access to plenty of fresh water
  • Regular appropriate healthcare as and when required
  • Regular appropriate exercise
  • People who can understand their communication and heed them
  • Allowing them to have as much choice as is possible and safe
  • Enrichment activities (including breed specific enrichment)
  • Able to do dog things: digging, running, sniffing - let them be dogs!
  • Comfortable places to rest or sleep
  • Peace and quiet when they want
  • Minimising stress in their environment
  • Kind and empathetic handling and training
  • Respect for the dog's individuality and preferences

If you can tick off that all of these are covered, then your dogs' needs are definitely being met and that they are living their best lives with you. Congratulations, you are a good dog guardian!

* * * * *

Exciting news: I am speaking at the Woofzestbuzz virtual global dog summit in October, talking about my journey with Finn and exploring canine reactive behaviour through that journey. Get your tickets to join me and a list of amazing dog people!

I also have a new Redbubble shop, which has a mix of items in there from both the dog side of what I do and the imposter syndrome aspect. I've seen a few pieces in the flesh from the 'Feeling the Fear' design and they are absolutely gorgeous!

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Why Environment Matters for Our Reactive Dogs

Dogs are very aware of the environment around them, often far more so than we are. This can have effects on our reactive dogs as well. My dog of choice is the Border Collie, which will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog as my current boy Finn features regularly. His herding genetics mean he is very responsive to movement and very visual.

When working flocks of sheep, collies are using their eyes all the time. There is the classic collie ‘eye’ in which they stare hard at any sheep not moving the way the dog is steering them. They are also always scanning the flock to make sure there are no outliers about to make a break for freedom away from the main flock. Their sight is sharp and primed to take notice of any change in the landscape.

Sunday, 27 June 2021

3 Alternatives to Your Usual Walks for a Reactive Dog

One of the very first things we often learn about dogs is the essential nature of the daily walk. For many dogs, daily walks are something they really enjoy. For those dogs and their humans, the hours spent out exploring together are a perfect way to spend time together.

For other dogs and the humans who live with them, the daily walk can be an anxiety-inducing, tense, and stressful experience. Never able to truly relax, constantly scanning the environment. Worrying about what might be coming around the next corner to cause upset and stress.

Thursday, 17 June 2021

'My Trainer Said They'd Fix My Dog! What's Going Wrong?'

Border collie against a yellow background, head tilted to one side. Text reads 'What if my dog can't be fixed?'

I had a conversation the other evening with someone I met through a Facebook group. She messaged me with a video of her lovely little dog who is reactive but is doing really, really well after years of consistent and careful counter conditioning and desensitisation work.