Opening a dog training business is easy because the industry is unregulated; becoming a dog training professional is more difficult. A true professional should have integrity, abide by a code of ethics and have an academic background in operant and respondent conditioning to support good dog training mechanical skills if they are to positively impact the lives of people and their dogs. Professional dog trainers must understand how dogs learn, if we understand how dogs learn then we can not only teach then new behaviors, we can also modify unwanted behaviors.

How dogs learn and unlearn behaviors is critical knowledge for today’s dog trainers and behavior analysts. If we are to save canine lives, help families retain their pet dogs and create harmony between canine and human them a strong understanding of how does learn is a must. Pet dog owners with problems need then solved and solved quickly.

How Dogs Learn and Unlearn Behaviors

Natural selection affects innate behaviors such as reflexes, modal action patterns and general behavior traits. The difference between reflexes and modal action patterns is that a reflex (the relationship between a specific event and specific response) only affects individual muscles and glands.  Modal action patterns are an orderly sequence of reflex behaviors which affect the entire being.  Researchers have argued that modal action patterns no longer exist in human beings as there is such variation across the behavior of the species.  The role of genes in human behavior is defined as behavior traits (Chance 2008).


Natural selection helps species adapt to change across generations but does not help living beings cope with fast environmental change. When individuals need to modify their behavior to adapt to new and changing environments they must learn.   Learning indicates a change in behavior and takes place through experience to events, i.e. stimulus.  Learning is essential for survival. Chance (2008 p 24) states “learning takes up where reflexes, modal action patterns and general behavior leave off”.


I believe that   dogs learn in two key ways, task-conscious or acquisition learning.

Acquisition learning is seen as going on all the time. It is 'concrete’, immediate and confined to a specific activity; it is not concerned with general principles (Rogers 2003: 18). Examples include much of the learning involved in and around the home.  Some have referred to this kind of learning as unconscious or implicit. Rogers (2003: 21), however, suggests that it might be better to speak of it as having a consciousness of the task. In other words the learner may not be conscious of learning; I equate this to respondent conditioning. The second form of learning is learning-conscious or formalized learning such as takes place in the training class environment. Formalized learning arises from the process of facilitating learning. It is 'educative learning' rather than the accumulation of experience. To this extent there is a consciousness of learning - subjects are aware that the task they are engaged in entail learning. 'Learning itself is the task. What formalized learning does is to make learning more conscious in order to enhance it' (Rogers 2003: 27). It involves guided episodes of learning.  In dog training we consider this to be how we apply the protocols of operant conditioning.


So What is Operant Conditioning

In Operant Conditioning there are four types of operant learning, defined as such because the behavior operates on the environment.  Two of the quadrants of operant conditioning strengthen behaviors, referred to as reinforcements. The other two of the operant conditioning quadrants weaken behavior, referred to as punishments. The quadrants are referred to as a negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, negative punishment and positive punishment.  The terms positive and negative do not describe the consequence, they indicate whether a stimulus, has been added (positive) or subtracted (negative) to increase or weaken the preceding behavior.


Both positive and negative reinforcement increase the strength of the behavior due to its consequence.  With positive reinforcement the behavior is followed by the appearance of or an increase in the intensity of a stimulus. The stimulus is called a positive reinforcement as it is something the subject seeks out therefore it reinforces the behavior that precedes it.  With negative reinforcement the behavior is strengthened by the subject’s ability to avoid or escape an aversive stimulus, thus negative reinforcement is sometimes referred to as escape-avoidance learning. An experience must have three characteristics to qualify as reinforcement.  The behavior must have a consequence, the behavior must increase in strength and the increase in strength must be a result of the consequence (Chance 2008 p 127).


As behavior is the function of its consequences and whereas reinforcement strengthens the likelihood of a behavior then punishments reduce the strength of the behavior. Punishers are aversives and something a subject works to avoid. When an aversive event is added to a situation then positive punishment has taken place. Negative punishment subtracts something from the situation, like privileges, and is sometimes called penalty training.  Experiences must have three characteristics to qualify as punishment. First, the behavior must have a consequence, second the behavior must decrease in strength and finally the reduction in strength must be a result of the consequence (Chance 2008).

Respondent Conditioning

Within an organism there are two types of reflexes, unconditioned reflexes and conditioned reflexes. An unconditioned reflex (UR) is unlearned and occurs unconditionally, whereas a conditioned reflex (CR) is acquired and considered impermanent.  An unconditioned reflex consists of an unconditioned stimulus (US) and an unconditioned response (UR).  An unconditioned stimulus is something that when presented evokes a natural, unconditioned response,  such as blinking when air is pushed towards the eyelid or sweating when stressed or scared. Unconditioned reflexes are important for an animal’s survival.  Freeze dried liver offered to a dog is an example of a US and the dog drooling is an example of the resulting UR.


A conditioned reflex occurs when a conditioned stimulus (CS) creates a conditioned response (CR).  This is a learned response to a given set of conditions occurring in the environment.  Pavlov recognized that any stimulus could become a conditioned stimulus when paired repeatedly with an unconditioned stimulus.  Respondent conditioning takes place when an unconditioned stimulus that elicits an unconditioned response is repeatedly paired with a neutral stimulus. As a result of conditioning the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus that reliably elicits a conditioned response. Each single pairing is considered a trial. With respondent conditioning the presentation of the two stimuli, neutral and unconditioned, are presented regardless of the behavior the individual is exhibiting. The behavior elicited is a reflex response.


The techniques used for changing behavior are either operant conditioning techniques or respondent conditioning techniques. Respondent conditioning techniques are used for addressing conditioned emotional responses, for example behaviors such as fear, panic or anxiety that are controlled by the autonomic nervous system. Operant conditioning techniques are used for changing operants, which are behaviors that are controlled by their consequences.

Respondent conditioning techniques for changing behavior focus on the antecedents in the operant scheme, the stimuli, setting events and motivating operations that contribute to or elicit the problematic conditioned emotional responses and the operants they motivate.  Respondent conditioning techniques and procedures used for changing behavior are a combination of, a) in vivo systematic desensitization where the animal is systematically and gradually exposed to the problem stimulus while maintaining the animal below the conditioned emotional response threshold, b) counter conditioning a type of exposure therapy where the problematic conditioned emotional response is replaced with a more desirable or appropriate response and c) attention exercises that promote relaxation by redirecting the animal’s focus (O’Heare 2009).

In contrast to respondent conditioning, operant conditioning behavior change techniques change the operants by controlling the postcedents and affecting those that have an effect on the behavior, i.e. the consequences. Operant conditioning takes place when a response in a given situation is reliably reinforced; there is a contingency between the response and the reinforcer.  Shaping behaviors and differential reinforcement are operant techniques for changing behavior that focus on developing appropriate target behaviors, referred to as the constructional approach (O’Heare 2009). The application of positive reinforcement, negative punishment, negative reinforcement and positive punishment are all procedures that can be used to affect and change behavior with or without extinction trials. The least aversive and invasive operant conditioning behavior change techniques, shaping and differential reinforcement, also positively affect respondent behaviors (Miltenberger 2004).


Chance, P. (2008) Learning and Behavior, Wadsworth Cengage Learning

O’Heare, J. (2008) Behavior Change Programming and Procedures 2009, CASI,

Miltenberger (2004) Behavior Modification Principles and Procedures Third Edition, Thompson. USA

Rogers (2003)  Freedom to Learn. Sourced 2009