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How Dogs Learn

Classical Conditioning

The most common example of classical conditioning is that of Pavlov’s dogs. Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist, discovered that dogs automatically salivated when presented with food. He trained his dogs to associate the ringing of a bell with the presentation of food and was eventually able to make the dogs salivate at the sound of a bell.

You may have already applied the principles of classical conditioning to your dog. If your dog enjoys going for walks and associates seeing his leash being removed from it’s usual spot, he may become excited just by seeing the leash.

Another example of classical conditioning occurs when a new puppy owner takes his pup for a walk. You may encounter another dog and instinctively tighten your hold on the leash. The unintentional result can be your dog mirroring your tense, protective behavior when he sees another dog on a walk.

Operant Conditioning

The scientific principles of operant conditioning, developed by behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner in the 1950s, apply to all creatures with a central nervous system. While the terminology initially can be confusing, if you remember the following definitions it’s really quite simple: Positive: Means something is added. Negative: Means something is taken away. Reinforcement: Behavior is likely to increase or strengthen. Punishment: Behavior is likely to decrease or extinguish.

Positive Reinforcement

The dog’s behavior makes something good happen. “Positive,” in behavioral terms, means something is added. “Reinforcement” means the behavior increases. When your dog sits, you feed him a treat. His behavior (sitting) made something good happen, something was added (the treat). As a result, your dog is more likely to offer to sit again, so the behavior increases. Positive trainers use positive reinforcement a lot. Example: The dog sits, he gets a treat; dog is more likely to sit again, perhaps faster.

Positive Punishment

The dog’s behavior makes something bad happen. (Positive means something is added, punishment means the behavior decreases.) Example: When your dog jumps on you you knee him hard in the chest. He gets off. His behavior (jumping up) made something bad happen; something was added (your knee in his chest). As a result, your dog is more likely to think twice before jumping on you again. “Positive trainers” do not use positive punishment very much, if at all.

Negative Punishment

The dog’s behavior makes something good go away. (Negative = something is taken away; punishment = the behavior decreases.) When your dog jumps up, you turn your back and step away. His behavior (jumping) made something good (your attention) go away. Positive trainers use negative punishment as a mild negative consequence for unwanted behavior.

Negative Reinforcement

The dog’s behavior makes something bad go away. (Negative means something is taken away; reinforcement increases the behavior.) Example: A trainer wants a dog who is lying down to sit. He pulls the dog’s leash upward, tightening the collar. When the dog sits up, the trainer slacks the leash. The dog’s behavior (sitting) makes the bad thing (the tightened collar) go away.  Positive trainers may use a limited amount of negative reinforcement in the form of mild physical pressure, or sub-threshold presentation of an aversive stimulus (CAT).