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How Animals Learn- Part 2: Operant Conditioning

Text: “Behavior is determined by its consequences”-B.F. Skinner Operant Conditioning Any behavior reinforced is more likely to occur

Part 1 we talked about classical conditioning and how to use it to create a helpful training tool. There are other ways to use it, like desensitization, but we will have to save that topic for another day because we are going to jump to the second way of learning, through consequence. This is called operant conditioning and is really effective at shaping an animal’s behavior.

When their actions lead to rewarding consequences they will repeat them more often. An example might be your dog sitting in front of you and you reaching down to pet them. If your dog enjoys interacting with you, they are likely to come and sit in front of you again. If instead the consequence is something your dog dislikes, they will be less likely to do that behavior again.

Maybe they jumped up on the countertop and slipped on a dish, frightening themselves. Your dog may be less likely to jump up on that counter again, but there can potentially be longer term damage from unpleasant consequences. Remember learning by association (classical conditioning aka associative learning) is always happening, so in this example your dog might not jump up on the countertop, but they may also start being reactive in the kitchen or develop concern with slippery surfaces as a result. Every animal is different.

See the Operant Conditioning Info Sheet below for a visual explanation of the technical terms “positive reinforcement”, “negative reinforcement”, “positive punishment”, and “negative punishment”:

Some terms to know*:

Operant= a voluntary behavior which acts on and produces a change in the environment

Antecedent= the situation under which the behavior is produced

Behavior= the ‘operant’ that is performed on the environment

Consequence= the outcome of the behavior

Positive= adding something to the environment (attractive or approaching drive)

Negative= something being taken away from the environment (avoidance drives)

Reinforcement= the event which increases the frequency of the behavior it follows

Punishment= the event which decreases the frequency of the behavior it follows

Note: Operant conditioning can also be referred to as instrumental conditioning.

A simplified version would be that if an animal does something right, and you want to see more of it, then reward it to establish reinforcement for that behavior. If an animal does a behavior that is undesirable, and you want to decrease it, you should give no reaction to not reinforce it.

The classically conditioned tool, like a clicker/marker-word is incredibly helpful in communicating the exact moment of reinforcement. So, since any behavior reinforced is more likely to occur, this tool increases the efficiency of operant conditioning.

The reason you may not have heard about operant conditioning in its entirety is because it has been over simplified to help with general person understanding. Credentialed training professionals find it concerning to tell people positive punishment will decrease unwanted behaviors since it can be harmful short and long-term, proven less humane, and is against multiple veterinary association guidelines.

Certified animal/dog trainers through reputable boards, are professionals that use Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive methods. Only after discussing the situation and working with a certified animal/dog trainer should you use positive punishment (aka aversive) due to the potential serious side effects. You should also have already discussed the situation with your trusted veterinarian since unrecognized pain or discomfort is a common underlying reason for many behavioral issues, and they may be able to guide you to an appropriate resource or treatment plan.

Note: This is not talking about an interrupter (having to loudly or physically stop a dangerous and serious situation) that is not continued after the behavior has ended as a consequence. Extreme example: If there is a dog jumping on top of a person doing harm and you need to get them off of the victim as quickly and safely as possible, you likely used an aversive for an obviously appropriate reason and specific, one-time-only situation.

How does this tie in with physical rehab?

Understanding these concepts are helpful for all pet parents because this is improving the communication and understanding between you and your animal companion in ways that will improve the toughest situations they may face either now or in the future.

In physical rehab, we often are training the body again on how to do particular movements or tasks safely. In this situation, it is important for the animal to have a positive experience to have the best effects. Using both classical and operant conditioning in both behavioral and physical rehab, we empower animals to take part of their own medical care and recovery-> The way that is physically safe, when combined with a certified canine rehab therapist/vet. And the way that is mentally safe, when combined with a fear free professional approach.

Check out the learning portal post for more about Why Low-Stress Handling is Key to Achieving Optimal Outcomes


Animal Training by Ken Ramirez

Animal Training 101 by Jenifer A. Zeligs, PH.D.

Learning Portal Post written by Dr. Emily Hall, DVM, CCRT, CPAT-KA