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What Is Science Based Dog Training?

When I say “science based” dog training I mean that the training is based on the study of the dog, it’s behaviors, and how it learns. Something can be considered scientific if it is directly observable. Directly observable means that we can see something happen with our own eyes, and recreate this scenario to see again and again. If you ever studied psychology, then a lot of the concepts below will sound familiar.

Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov was the first person to say that classical conditioning applies to animals as well as humans. An unconditional stimulus produces an unconditional response, and a conditioned stimulus produces a conditioned response. The classic example of Pavlov’s dog; he experimented with dogs by pairing a bell with tasty meat powder. Since the meat powder would cause the dogs to salivate in anticipation of the meat, he would ring a bell just before the addition of the meat powder, and guess what? The dogs eventually salivated at the sound of the bell without the pairing of the good smelling meat powder. In the beginning it is easy to understand why the dog is salivating; meat powder tastes good! But it is a learned response for the dog to salivate at the sound of the bell. The pairing of a unconditioned or neutral stimuli (the bell) with something we already have a conditioned response to; food that smells good, so we salivate; we can teach the neutral stimuli to have the same response, the bell to cause us to salivate.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a concept that was developed by B.F. Skinner. As the father of operant conditioning, Skinner introduced the concept of reinforcement: a behavior that is reinforced increases in frequency, while a behavior that is not, decreases.

The Four Quadrants

The four quadrants of operant conditioning refers to Positive Reinforcement (+R), Negative Reinforcement (-R), Positive Punishment (+P), Negative Punishment (-P). The first important thing to understand is that the positive and negative do not refer to good and bad, but instead addition and subtraction, or removal. Reinforcement is something that is going to increase the likelihood of a behavior, while punishment will the decrease the likelihood of a behavior.

Positive Reinforcement is the addition of something that is likely to increase a desired behavior. A great example is feeding a treat if your dog sits; the addition of the food reward increases the likelihood that your dog will sit again.

Negative Reinforcement is the removal of something that will increase a desired behavior. A great example of negative reinforcement is the beeping seat belts in cars now; the beeping is removed, or stops, as soon as you buckle your seat belt, so you are more likely to buckle your seat belt increase in desired behavior) to subtract the annoying beeping.

Positive Punishment is the addition of something that will lessen an undesired behavior. If you shock a dog for barking, this is positive punishment; you are adding the shock to lessen the undesired behavior of barking.

Negative Punishment is the removal of something that will decrease a behavior. If your dog jumps up on you and you turn your back, this is negative punishment. You are removing yourself, and your attention to decrease the behavior of jumping.

We often use more than one quadrant. Even a lot of the above examples use more that one quadrant as the entire situation is playing out. The seat belt is a good example because at it’s onset: the moment the alarm begins to beep at you for not buckling your seat belt, this is positive punishment, as it continues to beep, the only way to stop it is by buckling your seat belt, it moves to negative reinforcement. A similar example is using a shock collar to train a dog to come when called; you call your dog to come, and if she does not, you begin to press the button on your remote which elicits a shock. The addition of the shock to lessen the behavior of not coming right away; positive punishment, but as your hold the button down, until your dog begins to come to you, this switches to negative reinforcement. The shock only stops, or is removed, when the behavior of coming to you is happening to increase the likelihood of this behavior. I have found that there are humane, non-painful or scary ways to use three out of the four quadrants; but I see no place for positive punishment!

Counter Conditioning

Counter conditioning is used to change one’s condition response to a stimuli. By pairing stimuli that evoke opposite responses we can change the negative response to become positive. For example, if your dog hates having her nails clipped, and as soon as she sees the nail trimmer she runs and hides; then the nail trimmer already elicits a negative response. But if your dog absolutely LOVES roast beef, and anytime you even touch the roast beef bag in the fridge, she comes running as fast as she can, then roast beef elicits a positive response. If we remember the good follows the bad, we can help our dog to change their response. So if the good is roast beef and the bad is the nail trimmer, we want to show our dog the nail trimmer and then follow it with some tasty roast beef. If we can do this enough and with good enough timing we can teach our dog that the nail trimmer means we are going to go to the fridge and get roast beef, then we can change our dg’s response to the nail trimmer to be her response to roast beef!


The basic definition of desensitization is to make less sensitive. We can desensitize a dog to something by exposing her to a stimuli in a very non threatening manner. So perhaps we want to desensitize our dog to strollers. We might start byt having a toy stroller for a doll, very far away from the dog. We have made the stimuli smaller and farther away. Little by little as the dog gets used to the small stroller at a far distance, we might work to slowly move the stroller closer. We want to continue exposure as long a fear response is not triggered. Once the dog is used to the small doll stroller near her, we might try a larger stroller, but we would likely add the distance back and start with the large stroller far away. Again the idea is to avoid a fear response being triggered. Usually desensitization and counter conditioning are used together to help dogs overcome many fears and behavioral issues that result.

Primary vs. secondary Reinforcers

If you are going to understand the four quadrants, and understand that we apply at least one of the quadrants when we are working to change behaviors, it is important to understand the difference between primary and secondary reinforcers. Primary reinforcers are those things we need biologically; food, drink and sex. Secondary, or learned reinforcers through association, such as money and praise. If you are working to truly change a response and see the desired response only, you need to use primary reinforcers in your dog training. This means using food! Your praise and affection are wonderful, but they are secondary reinforcers and may not be strong enough when the behavior problem is deeply embedded. If you hope to make changes while counter conditioning you will also need to use primary reinforces.

I hope this has shown you that there is a lot of thought, study and preparation that goes along with science based dog training. It is not just a catchy phrase, but instead tells you that the trainer you have chosen, understands your dogs behavior in a way that has been studied, and tested. Science based dog trainers do not take their methods from TV shows, or because they “have had dogs their entire life…” It is a personal choice, and you should do what is best for you, but if you were facing a traumatic experience and you wanted to best recover, would you go to a life coach, or a psychiatrist?

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