This clip from the show “The Big Bang Theory” shows the reinforcement process in action!
Timing – Behaviorist Jean Donaldson affectionately calls dogs “lemon brains” because they only have 1 – 2 seconds to associate their behavior with a consequence. Whether you are using reinforcement, punishment, or extinction, timing is always of the essence in training situations. Communication with a learner is most effective when conditioned reinforcers (clickers) or conditioned punishers (warnings) are paired with the behavior and then followed immediately by a consequence. If we are teaching a dog to “sit,” we will click as the dog is sitting and then deliver the reinforcement within 1 – 2 seconds, as it may be difficult to get the reinforcement to the dog as he is offering the desired behavior.
If we are going to implement negative punishment (time out) to decrease nippiness in a puppy, we may want to use a conditioned punisher (a word like “oops”) which means that a time out is on the way. This allows the handler to mark the behavior in a prompt manner and then follow up with a consequence. When using a conditioned punisher (“oops”) to precede a positive or negative punishment, we are also allowing the dog a way of avoiding the punisher – if he stops when he hears “oops”, we can reinforce him for halting the unwanted behavior.
Consistency – Whether you are using punishment or reinforcement, your dog will learn best if you are consistent. For instance, a dog will learn a behavior like “sit” faster if she is reinforced each time she does the behavior than she would have learned if she only got reinforced for 5% of her attempts.
Rate of reinforcement – When you are initially training a new behavior, using a high rate of reinforcement will keep your dog motivated, focused, and enjoying the training game.
Satiation/Deprivation – When using reinforcement, we often talk about reinforcement satiation. My Chow mix, Mokie tends to get tired of even high value treats if she gets the same treat in many consecutive training sessions. If I am able to introduce reinforcement variety, the reinforcement tends to hold a high value for a longer period of time.
In punishment, a dog can develop a “punishment callus.” Per Terry Ryan, “If a punishment isnt strong enough to stop the behavior the first time, the owner typically escalates the punishment next time. The dog develops a “punishment callus”. Eventually the level of punishment needed to work will have to be stronger than what you started with.”
This happens in humans with “tolerance levels.” Someone who drinks infrequently may feel the effects of intoxication after one drink. An alcoholic may need to consume significantly more alcohol to exhibit the same level of intoxication.
I hope that this week’s discussion of operant conditioning has helped you better understand the techniques that fall under the operant umbrella and how they may best be implemented. To learn more about operant conditioning, how and why it works, you may find the following resources helpful:
How Dogs Learn by Mary Burch and Jon Bailey
Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor