Operant conditioning is one of the cornerstones of animal training. It is the first thing that I teach at Beckman's Academy for Dog Trainers and often the first thing I go over with group class clients and most clients that want to do any type of basic obedience training. However, I constantly see trainers and some clients overusing operant conditioning. While OC is important for basic obedience it rarely helps with fear, reactivity or aggression. In fact I have seen dogs become more fearful and aggressive by a trainer who is so committed to OC that they missed the window of opportunity to desensitize or counter condition a young dog.
The textbook example is when a client shows up ay my facility with a bag full of treats and clicker. They come in with their dog barking and lunging, they wait for a split second after the dog stops, and then they click and treat. Seems like the right thing to do right? Wrong, they are being too operant. They are only thinking in terms of operant conditioning, mainly positive reinforcement. But even positive punishment (corrections) isn't the right thing to do either. So I say to them, "you are being too operant. I want you to forget about the clickers and treats, it hasn't worked for you this far". These clients and dogs need a total shift in direction. They need to focus on the other main type of conditioning, Classical Conditioning. I take the leash and start to walk the dog in a big circle, then I let Bosco out within view, the dog may bark and lunge, and I just keep walking, once the dog has calmed down, I may let another dog out or let Bosco get closer. Eventually I usually let the dog meet Bosco. This is done without treats or corrections (both operant in nature).
Classical Conditioning is the second principle I teach at the Academy. And it is by far more "powerful" than operant conditioning. It's elicited responses vs emitted responses, and I'll take emitted responses over elicited all day.
I know a trainer at a zoo. His area is trying to get a hyper dog to be calmer around the big cat that it's suppose to live with. But instead of constant desensitization and learned helplessness around the big cat, they are clicking and treating for every little calm behavior. If they are very skilled trainers they may achieve what looks like calm behavior, but since it was done operantly I'm not sure that the dog will really be calm or that it will happen at all. Operant conditioning isn't good for conditioning calmness. (And for all you prospective trainers reading this, about half of your clients just want their dog to be calm) Constant desensitization and learned helplessness (see previous blog on what learned helplessness is) is the only way to truly achieve an emitted calm behavior.
Also I was at a event with arguably the most well know "Force Free" trainer, we were talking and watching an agility event. For the whole time that we were hanging out, her little dog was offering behaviors; rollover, wave, sit, shake, the dog simply couldn't calm down, it was very difficult to watch. The dog had been trained with so much operant conditioning, (I'm sure she even tried to train calmness with OC), that the dog's little brain just couldn't relax. This trainer was so good at OC that she believes that it's the answer for everything.
But why doesn't operant conditioning work for calmness? If you were to reinforce and animal for being calm wouldn't that behavior occur again? Yes, but you are just going off of the physical "look" of being calm, often the dog's "mind" is not calm. Also just the presence of reinforcement (treats) makes it impossible to achieve true calmness. And lastly, a principle called superstitious behaviors, this is "an accidentally reinforced behavior", so you are trying to reinforce a look away a half of second before the lunge at another dog but instead you reinforced the dog "thinking" or even doing the lunge.
Why do so many trainers focus so heavily on OC? It's complicated but here are a few reasons. 1) Trainers believe that the better they are at OC, the better trainers they are. When in fact simplifying things for clients is the true skill. 2) All positive reinforcement trainers look up to the leaders in the industry, and all the leaders in the industry look up to the marine mammal industry. But the truth is the marine mammal industry doesn't really need calm animals for a long period of time, they are with the animals very little, and when they step away from the animals the animals are no longer near the trainer, essentially they are "out of the trainers hair". Whereas dog owners are often with their dogs all the time. 3) The marine mammal's environment rarely changes whereas we need our dog to be calm in ever-changing environments. Basically, while marine mammal trainers are some of the best trainers in the world, but it's a very different thing entirely, so following the marine mammal doctrine like many leaders in the dog training world, is a losing proposition.
My point of this post is that there is no substitute for desensitization, there is no substitute for learned helplessness and there is no substitute for counter conditioning. And all dog owners and trainers should do these 3 things way more than they think they should. Understanding and being skilled at operant conditioning is very important, but you have to know when to use it and when NOT to.