Thursday, April 19, 2007

Clicker--Operant and Classical conditioning

I'm one of those "figure out how it works" geeks. When I first started learning about clicker training, there were a lot of terms thrown around I had no clue about. Operant Conditioning. Classical Conditioning. Positive Punishment. Negative Punishment. Positive Reinforcement. Negative Reinforcement.

At first it didn't seem that hard. I mean, positive something had to be good and negative something had to be bad, right? And clicker dogs were trained using Operant conditioning, right?

Well, no. Not exactly. And I do think it helps to really understand these terms as they apply to dog training Correct terminology and understanding how the methods work is one of the keys to effectively teaching your dog. So here goes.

Classical Conditioning is best described by the studies done by Pavlov. In Classical conditioning, a dog is conditioned to recognize that a certain event will always predict another event. In Pavlov's experiments, the ringing of a bell was always associated with food, so that the dogs began to salivate purely from the sound of the bell. Replace "bell" with "clicker" and you know how the clicker works. We teach the dog that the clicker always means a treat, therefore the dog begins to feel reinforced by the sound of the clicker itself and automatically anticipates food.

Operant Conditioning, first described by B.F. Skinner, is more complex. Basically, Operant Conditioning says "behaviors have consequences." The terms used in Operant Conditioning are Positive, Negative, Reinforcement, and Punishment. But these terms have some different definitions than we normally think of. It helps if you decide that scientists don't live in the real world and don't speak the same language we do even when it sounds the same. In science-speak:

Positive means Add Negative means Subtract or take away
Reinforcement means that a behavior *increases*
Punishment means that a behavior *decreases*
Extinguish means the behavior disappears

Please note that there are no emotional connotations to these terms. Positive is not inherently good. Negative is not bad, and nor is punishment. It's merely a science geek's way of saying add, subtract, increase, decrease. And all methods of dog training, from clicker to Koehler, use Operant techniques. It is incorrect to say that clicker training is operant training and other training is not. Clicker training is operant training, but so is smacking the dog in the head for not sitting promply.

There are four main ways to train a dog Operantly

1. Positive Reinforcement
2. Negative Reinforcement
3. Positive Punishment
4. Negative Punishment

So taking the science-geek definitions, what do these mean?

1. Positive Reinforcement = ADDing something to INCREASE a behavior
2. Negative Reinforcement = SUBTRACTING something to INCREASE a behavior
3. Positive Punishment = ADDing something to DECREASE a behavior
4. Negative Punishment = SUBTRACTING something to DECREASE a behavior

So I don't know if anybody is reading this so I'll ask a few questions and see if I get any comments or answers. Try to guess what each of the following is.

1. A dog gets out of heel position, and the owner pops the collar to bring him back.

2. A dog gets very excited about his ball and accidently bites the owner, the owner takes the ball away.

3. A dog is not fed if he does not track a scent trail.

4. A dog is given a treat for sitting.

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