Long before I started using Operant Conditioning in training my dogs, I gained a passing familiarity with it in a college level psychology class. I remember lengthy debates with classmates over whether Skinner’s work on Operant Conditioning reduced behavior to something purely mechanical. Was Skinner’s assertion that “consequence dictates behavior” an attempt to reduce us all to simple input/output machines.
Although nearly four decades have passed since my college days, Operant Conditioning and its four quadrants of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment still raise skepticism in the minds of many people. We don’t want to be thought of as simple machines. And we certainly don’t want to think of our beloved dogs that way.
Having trained dogs with Operant Conditioning, I now have a very different perspective. The “magic” of Operant Conditioning is not simply that it works. Those who focus solely on that kind goal oriented approach miss what I feel is the most important aspect of the technology. In order for any of Operant Conditioning to work, there must be something that the subject want enough to try to get or something distasteful enough to try to avoid. In other words we have to know what our dog likes and doesn’t like.
That is the real magic in Mark & Reward training (which uses Operant Conditioning). In order for a behavior to be reinforced, my dog has to want what I’m offering as a reward. It has to be something she likes. How do I know what she likes? I have to get to know her. That is where you find the magic.
No two dogs are exactly alike. They might not like the same things. Our they might like the same thing to different degrees. Skinner was right. Operant Conditioning just works. But that doesn’t make us machines. Machines don’t have likes and dislikes. Don’t our preferences, our likes and dislikes, make up what we call a personality?
So, go on… Get to know who your dog is!