Achieving Balance and Harmony


Cesar's rules: The natural way to a well-behaved dog -- excerpt 2

Operant conditioning is such a key principle of animal behavior that it is a mainstay of human psychology as well. I asked my friend Dr. Alice Clearman Fusco, a psychologist and college professor, to break the concept down for me the way she would to one of her first-year students. “In a nutshell, with operant conditioning the dog is ‘operating’ in the world—he’s doing something—and there is a consequence,” Alice explained. “On the other hand, there is classical conditioning, which occurs when the dog isn’t doing anything and an event occurs in his environment that causes him to make a connection between things.”

We’ve all heard about “Pavlov’s dog.” What Pavlov did was ring a bell and put meat powder in a dog’s mouth. The dog soon associated the bell with food. Very soon the dog would salivate when he heard the bell—not normal behavior. That’s classical conditioning at work….

In operant conditioning, while an animal is doing something—engaging in a behavior—something good or bad happens. This gives the lesson that the behavior is desired or not desired. I have spent my life watching dogs interact with one another and with their environments. Operant conditioning is the way nature’s own classroom works. If a dog pokes his nose at a porcupine, he is operantly conditioned (punished) by the quills. If he turns over a trash can and finds a half-eaten cheeseburger, he is operantly conditioned (rewarded) by the food.

Many people don’t realize how easy it is to unintentionally use operant conditioning in their daily lives—and to end up with a dog doing the exact opposite of what they want it to do. “I always tell my clients, whether you intentionally or unintentionally do it, you are always reinforcing particular behaviors,” says Barbara De Groodt. “Even if it’s behavior you don’t like, it’s probably because you have unintentionally reinforced it. The classic example is the dog running to the door barking and the owner running behind it yelling, ‘Shut up, shut up, shut up!’ The dog sees it as the whole pack running to the door barking and thinks, ‘Oh, this is great!’”

With operant conditioning, there is positive and negative punishment and positive and negative reinforcement.

Punishment reduces behaviors and reinforcement increases them.

Note that the terms “positive” and “negative” are only about adding or subtracting. They have nothing to do with something being nice or not nice.

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