Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dog Behavior Part 2: Reinforcement and Classical Conditioning

In my last post I gave five basic definitions: Operant Conditioning, Positive punishment, Negative punishment, Positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Today I will go more in depth on the subject of reinforcement and introduce the concept of classical conditioning.

First things first. Reinforcement is using something to increase the likeliness that a behavior will be repeated. The sub-categories of both reinforcement and punishment are positive and negative. At first the positives and negatives of behavior can be confusing. Think of it this way: positive indicates that you add something to get the desired result (i.e. a treat or aversive). Negative indicates that you remove something to get the desired result (i.e. attention or aversive). Once you begin thinking of it this way it is less confusing. Here is an example of Negative Reinforcement: You want to teach your dog to sit. You put the dog on leash tell him to "come" and yank or pull on the leash until the dog steps toward you. When the dog steps toward you the aversive stimulus (pressure on the leash) ceases and after repetition the dog realizes that when he comes on command he will avoid the aversive stimulus. When the dog completes the desired behavior the aversive is removed. I personally do not think that giving a command and pulling on a leash is the most effective way to teach a dog to come. Also, when used incorrectly negative reinforcement can be abusive and lead to a fearful dog (i.e. you pull up hard on a training collar to get a dog to sit). You can't expect a dog to immediately know whether a jerk on the leash means to sit or lay down. Negative Reinforcement doesn't always involve "pain". An example of "non-painful" negative reinforcement: You want to teach a puppy to sit. You say "sit" while putting pressure on the dog lower back with your hand. You are not forcing the puppy to sit, just waiting for him to do it himself. When the puppy sits you remove the pressure therefore reinforcing sitting on command.

Dembre--12 weeks (sitting was just reinforced with praise and food)
Now we are on to Positive Reinforcement! Positive reinforcement is probably the most popular and effective way to reinforce a behavior. Most of you have probably heard this term. A common of positive reinforcement is using food rewards, physical rewards (petting) and/or you voice to reinforce a behavior. When first teaching a puppy to sit you often lure him into a sitting position by hold the food over his nose. The treat is an appetitive stimulus (something the dog wants).  Once the dog sits he is rewarded with the treat and the behavior, sitting on command, is reinforced. Your voice can be used as either an aversive or appetitive stimulus. As an aversive stimulus you use a gruff and threatening voice. When used as an appetitive stimulus you use a high pitched and excited voice. Dogs love to hear the voice of their master when it is happy and excited. Dogs, by nature, are pack animals and when you have a bond with a dog they tend to seek your approval and affection. Positive Reinforcement is a great way to reward your dog for good behavior. It also tends to create a link between voice command, obedience, and reward fairly quickly. Good dog trainers use positive reinforcement often and effectively. TIMING IS THE KEY! When your dog does the desired behavior you need to reward him for the behavior IMMEDIATELY... not half a minute after he has done what you want. Dogs are "in the moment" animals and will not associate a treat a minute after he has done a command with the command. It is crucial that you reward the dog right away in order to make a link in his mind between the cue, the completion, and the reward.

Lastly, I would like to introduce a new concept. This concept is classical conditioning! Classical conditioning: Form of associative learning in which a subject learns the relationship between two stimuli. In other words associating one thing with another thing and then associating them with each other. A great example is Ivan Pavlov's famous experiment with dogs! Pavlov was originally trying to do some experiment that involved feeding dogs meat, but eventually when the dogs heard the foot steps of the people who fed them they would drool and it messed up the experiment. Pavlov could of given up, but he had another idea. Every time that the dogs were fed he would ring a bell. Eventually he just rang the bell and didn't immediately give the dogs food. The dogs began to drool. They had associated the sound of the the bell with being fed. When they heard a bell it made them instantly think of food. At least from my understanding!

More soon,
~Elijah & Dembre


  1. Elijah your classical conditioning definition is wrong. CC is not 'learning by association' CC is a physiological response to a stimulus. The dogs were not taught to drool when Pavolv rang the bell. The physiological response of the dog drooling was a conditioned response to a primary reinforcer- ie food and a secondary reinforcer- the bell. In CC there is always a primary reinforcer being conditioned, a primary reinforcer is something elemental to the animal necessary for survival the most common example is food. In CC you are trying to pair a physiological response, what ever that may be, with a secondary and primary reinforcer. In Pavolvs example the bell is the 2ndary the food the primary. Get ahold of a college level intro to psych class text, most explain classical and operant conditioning fairly well

  2. I found if you teach the dog what you want him to do first you can decrease the need to use aversive such as leash corrections, collar corrections is sooo much easier that way.

    I love positive reinforcement because it gives the dog a chance to think for himself versues us making them think our way.

  3. Katrin is right. Pavlov's experiment was, basically, how we react to stimuli. You've definitely got the nuances down, but Classical Conditioning is actually more like learning to predict an event that will occur due to a stimuli. The reason we use it as puppy trainers is simple. A dog is very distracted by squirrels but they're not allowed to be. So we take a previously neutral stimuli like the dog looking away or looking towards us and follow it by an important stimuli (ie. food). Over repetition and time the dog learns to predict that if there is a squirrel and it doesn't look at the squirrel then they will get food. It's why it's very, very important to be constant because if it's not constant then we will not learn to associate the two stimuli together. That's a very simplified version of it. :) But you've basically got it correct. I would suggest taking a Psych college course when you get to that age. Mine has taught me how why we do some of these things and will help me be a better raiser.

    Positive reinforcement is great! I think you get better results.

  4. Hi Elijah. If you respond to posters comments actually on your blog instead of theirs, others can read your responses and follow the progression of thought. Just a suggestion. I know most of us who post a comment on someone's blog come back to that blog to check for progression of the discussion.

    I think you will get there with your definitions and terms, and it is confusing to start, and even sometimes confusing after you've done it for a while :-) Some good books to read on dog human relationships, since you also seem to be interested in that, are by Patricia McConnell and Suzanne Clothier.

    You are trying to make, what can be, a challenging and confusing subject avaliable and digestable to your readers and yourself, that is a good amition to have :-) Keep up the good work

  5. Very interesting points! I definitely want to take a psych course at some point. The brain really is an amazing thing. I love that behaviorism applies to people, dogs, cats, and any animal. I have read some Patricia McConnel! I agree with almost everything she says. The only thing I disagree on is her physical correction ideas. She believes that physical correction can hurt the human-dog bond and create problems. To some extent I think this is true. Physical correction, as long as it's not abusive, is effective and is based off of a wolf communication model. Too much physical correction can lead to fear, though. Erin, you are right if you train a dog right and use lots of positive reinforcement you can get a dog who needs little positive punishment! Thanks for your thoughts.

    Elijah (& Dembre)

  6. Dogs aren't wolves. They're dogs. At this point they are so far removed from wolves. Also a dog pack in most home is structured compeletely unlike a wolf pack so pack heirarchy and structure is different. Wolf packs are a family pack, they are all related. Dogs packs in human homes are random dogs genreally completely unrelated thrown together and expected to coexist peacefully and happily. If you did that to wolves, they'd freak out. Dogs handle it quite well all the time. Dogs are like very immature puppy wolves all the time. They do not act, react, or have behavior the way adult wolves do. So saying that you should treat a dog the way a wolf pack treats its members makes zero sense. Dogs aren't wolves. They're dogs.

  7. Katrin, I agree and disagree with your idea. Very true dogs aren't wolves and shouldn't be treated like wolves. Wolves are able to survive in the wild and are not domesticated. It is also probably true that dogs are like immature wolves. I believe that dogs are not necessarily opposed to physical correction. I do not believe that any physical correction should be given in anger or should involve abuse, but I do not think that physical correction should be all together removed. Ceaser Millan believes that as a pack leader you have the right to give physical correction, but to give it responsibly. I agree. I think it is going to far to completely remove this form of positive reinforcement.

  8. Cesar Milan's beliefs are based off of studies from many years ago that have been proven wrong time and time again. If you're talking about operant conditioning, then you'd understand it better if you don't listen to Ceser Milan's thereos and instead do further research on dog body language, operant conditioning, dog-dog interaction, etc.

  9. I had another comment that I posted yesterday that somehow disappeared. Ally is 100% correct that Milan's beliefs have been proved wrong time and time again and his public "methods" have brought dog training back 30yrs and it is horrendously sad and disheartening to see.

    Dogs don't view us as pack leaders. We are not their pack. We are humans. Humans communicate emotions and needs primarily through verbal response and interaction, dogs do through subtle body language cues. Dogs know we aren't dogs and do not expect us to respond and interact with them as if we are dogs. It makes no logical sense to do so. The only time you have a pack is if you have 2 or more dogs living together.

    In a dog pack of 2+ dogs dogs have their own social structure and heirarchy compeletely unrelated to people. Dogs view people as those who control reseources. We are not a pack leader. We are individuals in their lives that control resources. Dogs do what works. So if what works to get resources- food, attention, play, etc is to respect and respond to the humans who control resources, that is what dogs will do. If what works is to be demanding, impulsive and out of control, that is what dogs will do. Dogs thrive on consistency and structure. A dog pack thrives on consistency and structure, dogs do not like strife. If the people in the dog's lives operate with principles of consistency and structure chances are the dogs will be content to respect and respond appropriately to the people the co-exist with. But they do not view us as an alpha dog or as a "pack" leader. We are people, they are dogs, they know we are different and have completely different social structures.

  10. Also physical correction is NOT positive reinforcement. Not even remotely close to being positive reinforcement at all. It is positive punishment. Your most recent comment said that Milan's methods with correction were positive reinforcement. That couldn't be further from the truth!

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