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Operant Conditioning With A Cocker Spaniel Puppy



We will use this video of Micky to illustrate different aspects of Operant Conditioning. At this point, Micky has had three or four sessions on a leash and three or four sessions going left and right on the boards. He has only had one session of going back to a board. Ignore some of the puppy distractions when we got started and he saw Christina filming and smelling other dogs/treats from previous sessions of the day. Remember, we are developing/teaching this 5-month old puppy and do not want to “break” him. He will make mistakes. We just want to teach him that there is a consequence to the mistake. Early on, our training is entirely based on Classical Conditioning. We linked the clicker to the treats so we could mark behaviors we like with the clicker. However, there was no consequence to Micky if he did not perform. It was very simple training. If he chose to perform the behavior we wanted, there was a click to mark it followed by a treat. Over time, we started to reward him with the treat intermittently to encourage him to work harder and solve problems (more on that later). At some point, Micky needs to learn there are consequences to incorrect behaviors. We do not believe a dog can be developed to a high level without consequences and some form of aversion training.


Operant Conditioning is used to encourage the behaviors we want. Using both positive and negative consequences, the behaviors will either be reinforced, or they will be punished. These terms are not based on emotions, they are based on science. Positive does not mean good things for the dog. Negative does not mean bad things to the dog. In Operant Conditioning, positive means to add something and negative means to take something away. There is both positive and negative reinforcement and both positive and negative punishment. Let us now analyze Micky.


Positive Reinforcement: This is the easiest one to recognize and understand. When I asked Micky to Hup, he received a click/treat if he did it correctly. It is positive reinforcement because when Micky’s behavior was good, we added the treat. This was done both on the leash and on the boards.


Negative Reinforcement: When the video starts, I am walking Micky on a leash. We have been working on this for three or four sessions and he is doing very well. Watch closely and you will see numerous corrections with me manipulating the leash. Micky can feel the taught leash and when he corrects his behavior with a better heel position, the taught leash relaxes. Remember, negative means to take something away. When Micky’s behavior was subpar, he felt the unpleasant taught leash and when he corrected his behavior, the taught leash went away.


Positive Punishment: You will hear me say “wrong" to Micky when he makes mistakes. We are really big on communication with our dogs. When we say “wrong” to our dogs, think of it as saying nice try but not the behavior we want. We are adding this term when the behavior is subpar, therefore, it is positive. It is punishment because there is no reinforcer to the word. I mentioned earlier about getting Micky to work harder. You can see this when we are working on the back board and he is guessing what I am going to ask him to do. When I say “wrong”, he actually tries again faster. This is a good thing even if the behavior he tries is poor. Have you ever put your knee into a dog that continues to jump on you? That is positive punishment because you added something.


Negative Punishment: We did not have an opportunity to show negative punishment in the video. To explain, go back to your dog jumping on you. Dogs tend to jump on you for attention. If you ignore the dog, it is negative punishment because you are taking your attention away from the dog.


As I said, dogs need to learn consequences to reach a high level of training. You are likely to need a combination of Operant Conditioning. Not all punishment is unsettling to a dog, yet minor things such as my “wrong” could be to some dogs. Not all dogs think a pet on the head is positive. Learn your dog’s personality to help minimize pressure but you do not want to eliminate it. Dogs must learn to deal with pressure. Operant Conditioning is the method used to build your foundation of consequences.


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