Methods without the madness: A brief overview of the science of positive dog training

For those of you wondering what all the fuss is about when it comes to positive dog training, or those of you wondering how on earth it could be this simple, here is a rundown of the learning theory that helps your puppy or dog figure out what is expected of him in this human world.

Positive reinforcement is one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning.  Operant conditioning explains how behavior changes based on reinforcement or punishment that happens immediately after the behavior.  Positive reinforcement is technically the addition of something positive after the behavior.  This is done with the intention of causing the dog to repeat the behavior.  Operant conditioning follows the formula: IF you “sit”, THEN you get chicken.  If a dog sits, and we give him a treat immediately afterward, the treat reinforces of the behavior of sitting.  Since it is something we added to the behavior (as opposed to taking away), it is referred to as positive.  Another example of positive reinforcement could be if a dog does “watch” on cue and is then immediately allowed to sniff his favorite shrub.  The shrub is added to reinforce the behavior of turning and looking to the human.

Another form of what is loosely referred to as positive dog training that is used primarily in behavior modification (the type of training used to rehabilitate fearful, reactive, or aggressive dogs) is classical conditioning.  This cute game on will quickly remind you of Pavlov’s theory.   As opposed to following the formula for operant conditioning mentioned above:  IF you “sit”, THEN you get chicken, classical conditioning is used to change the association made with a particular stimulus.  The formula then changes to:  scary human trying to pet me = chicken; human hand in my dish = sweet potato; dog walking by me when I’m on my leash walk = steak.  In this manner, dogs can be trained to respond to any stimulus in a positive way.  After repeated practice sessions using this formula, a dog will begin to show what is referred to as a conditioned emotional response to the stimulus.  This typically begins in the form of a happy look toward his human.  Later, operant conditioning can be used to teach a specific behavior such as a “sit” or “watch”, though as Dog Behaviorist, Jean Donaldson, explains it, these nice operant conditioning behaviors often “come along for the ride”.

Last, but not least, motivation is an extremely important factor that influences whether or not a learned behavior will happen.  Dogs (and any thinking creatures) are motivated to avoid bad things/experiences and gain more good things/experiences.  As discussed above, positive reinforcement dog training uses addition of good things to make behaviors occur more often while avoiding the use of or exposure to bad things.  This helps ensure the relationship between the human and the dog is a trusting one and allows the dog to make only positive associations about training, humans, dogs, and anyone or anything else involved.  As Pamela Reid explains in her book Excel-erated Learning: How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them, “For the most part, learning does not occur without motivation.  Once a behavior has been learned, it may not be performed if the animal is not motivated to respond. “  Motivation is an important factor in the performance of any behavior by any thinking being, including pet dogs.  Just because you know how to do your job, and even sometimes enjoy it, does not mean you will go to work without being paid.  Just because your dog knows how to come when he is called, does not mean he will automatically come when he is called if there is something more interesting to do.  Just because your husband/wife/teenager/co-worker knows what the cue “come” means, does not mean she will stop watching television and run to wash the dishes in order to please you.  You get the idea. You can also think of motivation in terms of stages of learning.  Perhaps your dog has been sufficiently motivated and learned how to “stay” in your living room and also in your front yard when a bike goes by, but he has not yet been sufficiently motivated and learned how to “stay” at the dog park or a park filled with squirrels.   Find a large variety of things your dog is absolutely crazy about (food, toys, play, attention, etc.) that will allow you to prompt the behavior in the first place and then continue to teach her that these behaviors are really worth her while to perform in real life situations.

If you’re interested in using positive dog training to build trust and have fun with your dog while teaching her to consistently behave appropriately in your home and your life, contact Erin by calling 858-213-9580 or emailing

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