What Is Operant Conditioning?

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Sam Basso
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Operant Conditioning (OC) is the science of the probability relationship between current behavior and future behavior, examining how current behavior is modified by the environmental consequences of that behavior. The study of Operant Conditioning is limited in scope by only those factors that can be observed, measured and reproduced. The practice of Operant Conditioning is the risky idea that what happens in the laboratory will also happen in someone’s home. Thus, only those behaviors that can be shown experimentally, in a laboratory, to be modified by the environmental consequences are relevant, and if someone doesn’t adhere to the Operant Conditioning model for all of their training then that person is somehow defective as an animal behaviorist. But, more on that later…

In the Operant Conditioning theory, behavior is broken down into units called responses, one called Operant and the other called Respondent.

There are four types of environmental consequences called eliciting (precede responses), reinforcers (follow responses), discriminative (precede operants), and neutral (factors which don’t affect the behavior).

Conditioning is another way of saying learning. A conditioned response is a learned response. Unconditioned means unlearned. An unconditioned response means a response that happens without any previous learning.

What OC is primarily concerned with is respondent conditioning, or behavioral learning, when new stimuli, which previously had no effect at all, takes on properties which result in changes in current and future behavior. And when secondary reinforcers, which also previously had no effect at all, take on properties which also result in changes in current and future behavior.

Some responses happen without any previous experience, such as how your dog might pull it’s foot away if it stepped on a sharp object. These are reflexive responses.

Thus, if you repeatedly present a previously meaningless stimulus, such as saying “Lift”, along with the pain of stepping on a sharp rock which would make your dog jerk its foot back, your saying “Lift” will eventually cause your dog to jerk its foot off the ground even if there isn’t any sharp rock to step on. Again, this is called respondent conditioning, or in other words your dog learned, and you trained, a behavior. You taught the command, “Lift”.

OC can happen through the use of primary or secondary reinforcers. A primary, or unconditioned, or unlearned, reinforcer is a stimuli that will elicit a behavior without any previous experience. Thus, you can use food as a happy consequence for an elicited behavior. A dog can be taught to sit for a piece of dried liver. A secondary, or conditioned, or learned reinforcer is a stimuli that originally can’t elicit a behavior. The word, Good, is meaningless to a dog that has never heard the word. But if the word, Good, is used in conjuction with the presentation of that tasty food in training, then eventually the dog will respond to the word Good as if food was used as a treat for doing the behavior. You have started on the path of using praise as a treat.

An OC learned behavior is considered controlled when it can be made to occur at a very high rate of probability. In traditional dog training terms, the behavior has been put on “command”.

All of this sounds fine and dandy in the abstract, and if that is all that dog training was about, it would be a pretty simple thing. Go get some clickers or an electric collar, and be done with it. But it isn’t as simple as that.

The remaining behavior your dog does is called operant behavior. It’s all that other stuff your dog does without you saying a command or ringing a bell or blowing a whistle… such as walking, breathing, eating, sleeping, interacting with other living beings, and such. The remainder of this behavior happens without your involvement. All these things happen from within the dog, and in relation to the rest of the situations it is in, not because of some observable, measurable, reproduceable external environmental consequence. Life is not a laboratory.

Not all behavior is modified by OC, yet learning is involved, and a good dog behaviorist has more ways to deal with behavior than just OC. For example, a puppy learning social skills by playing with its littermates and adult dogs isn’t done through OC. Innovative thinking doesn’t use this process, such as when a dog goes across a room, immediately turns and runs to jump a fence when the dog has never done that kind of thing before. Imprinting doesn’t use this process, even though we know that animals learn which species to relate to during a critical period during their youth. Territorial adoption doesn’t use this process, even though we know it happens when a new dog is brought into a home and eventually the dog protects the property and will usually come back if it gets out the door. And there are other types of behavior that can be modified, but don’t use this type of learning, such as the group attack of a pack of dogs on a victim. Many instances of aggression, flight, anxiety and panic don’t use this process. OC doesn’t even use the word “aggression” in it’s model, and when it is addressed, it is a skimpy description of what is really going on. I have yet to talk to an OC expert that had even a clue as to what aggression even is. Memorization of many behaviors doesn’t use this process. Many types of discrimination and coordination skills don’t use OC.

There are also processes of behavior that don’t lend themselves to any kind of learning very well, such as the biological responses to illness, and many aspects of reproduction and sexual selection, care of young, puppy behavior patterns vs adult behavior patterns, and a lot of those interesting behaviors we see in dogs that make us scratch our heads, such as the dog that runs into the burning building and carries out the baby. Yet, even some of these can be tapped into by a good dog behaviorist.

OC has many interesting things to teach us about behavior. But, it also isn’t all that is going on with behavior, and isn’t going to be enough to properly raise a dog or solve a real world behavioral problem. OC works pretty good when a dog is in a very controlled situation, where you can manage all the variables to get a specified outcome. But, does that sound like your household? As soon as you introduce the real world, including more people, dogs, cats, birds, lizards, noise, dog fights, social situations, thunder, seasons, different times of day, hormones if the dogs are intact, and such, the model then breaks down.

Operant conditioning operates at the level of simplified reflexive behavior… stimulus > response, input > output. Life is infinitely more complicated than what happens in a laboratory, where you put a dog put in a box, with electrodes and cameras, bells and a machine that pops out treats. OC practitioners are reading laboratory studies and then assuming all of that works in the real world, not taking into account that the real world isn’t in a laboratory setting. That is like performing a medical experiment on tissue in a Petri dish, and then giving the medicine to a live human, and the human dies. That is a great way for a researcher to go to prison. That is not how medical research is done.

Dogs have feelings, insights, perceptions, biological processes and types of social relationships which profoundly affect what they do or don’t do. OC ignores that because those things can’t be observed, measured and reproduced. Dogs are social creatures, and that profoundly affects their behavior. OC ignores that. Our relationship with our dog, and its relationships with every other living being it encounters also profoundly affects behavior. OC ignores that. The OC model doesn’t take any of these things into account because it cannot, life has too many variables. The theory of OC purposely excludes the real world. The randomness of life isn’t like a laboratory, where you can try to control what happens by only introducing factors that can be observed, measured and reproduced. Why do you think that researchers go hide in a blind in the wilderness to watch animal behavior for a few years? Isn’t that what Jane Goodall did? Those observations are not worthless, except to the theory of OC.

As I have said before, OC is becoming an obsolete science, because the flaws in the model cannot be ignored. It is like studying organic chemistry your whole life, and then practicing as a child psychologist. The educational experience at the level of the molecule doesn’t translate well to the complex life of giving advice on how to properly raise a child.

Using a dog trainer or behaviorist who is an expert in OC, but not an expert in all the rest, is a waste of time and money. I have seen this over and over again. As an example, I recently was contacted by an OC defender, who told me I must know nothing about OC, and wanted to rebuke and educate me on the topic. I gave the example of a recent dog attack that happened in my town. A group of dogs were fighting, and they turned on a 2 year old child and killed him. I asked what would be the OC way of dealing with this case. Her answer was she would teach all the dogs to be on a Down Stay whenever the kids were around. Here is what I said:

“Teaching the dogs to lay down in places wouldn’t prevent this kind of aggression. It wouldn’t prevent the cause of the fight, and it wouldn’t have broken up the fight. You can’t have a bunch of dogs doing a down stay all day long and call that a fix. I mean seriously, who puts 4 or 5 dogs in a down stay all day or for several days in a row? That isn’t a practical solution. This is the very problem I’m getting at. It is silly to propose that as an answer, and if that is all Operant Conditioning practitioners have to offer, then that proves my original point. Let me put it in a nutshell. What you are doing is trying to control the symptoms of the problem. That is the main problem with most Operant Conditioning focused trainers. What I do is go after the reason why the problem exists in the first place and solve that so that you don’t get the symptoms at all. Figure that out with most behaviors and then associative learning processes are better taught and retained, and in almost all cases when it involves behavioral problems, you don’t need to do your type of training at all.”

In other words, I would look at the situation holistically, and get at the root causes of why the dogs would fight in the first place. Get the dogs to be happy and friendly with one another, and then the dead child isn’t the end result. I wouldn’t waste time, or my student’s money or safety, trying to get the dogs to do a Down Stay all the time. That would make the dogs more miserable and even risk another fight and tragedy.

Do you get what I’m saying? Do you see why I call Operant Conditioning trainers “novices”? Yes, it angers them, and I get lots of angry emails from them. But, they aren’t behavior experts. They are OC experts, and that isn’t enough. The real, bottom line problem with Operant Conditioning? Operant Conditioning theory takes away the idea of using wisdom from the dog training process. Insight isn’t an OC process.

Now you know what Operant Conditioning is all about.

[Please Read: Why I Don’t Believe In Clicker Training]

Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.