Dogs have for a long time been referred to as mans best friend. This has been attributed to the fact that they remain loyal to their owners and obey commands given without hesitation. In addition, dogs are social creatures once you get to know them and they have a great level of humility and patience in comparison to other pets.
However, dogs have been noted to have unexplainable and unpredictable behaviors which if not addressed may be annoying and frustrating at times. As such, it is always wise to train your dog to behave in ways that do not affect your life or inconvenience you in any way.
Operant conditioning has been noted as the most successful way of enforcing behavioral change in dogs. Among the most common behaviors that can be taught to a dog are; sitting, laying down on all fours, shaking hands, potty training and training the dog how to obey directional commands (come, stop, fetch etcetera).
Despite all the progress that has been documented in regards to dog training, the fact still remains that you cannot teach old dogs new tricks. With this in mind, I shall explain how the theory of operant conditioning may be used to train a puppy to “roll over”.
To this end, I shall give a detailed analysis of the concepts surrounding this theory and how they apply in this task. The procedures that may be used to ensure a successful behavioral change (ability of the puppy to successfully “roll over”) shall also be outlined.
A brief overview of operant conditioning
Operant conditioning refers to the process through which positive and negative enforcements are used to increase or decrease the likelihood of adopting a particular behavior (Chance, 2008). In essence, operant conditioning is a type of behavior modification process that uses consequences to influence behavioral change.
The theory was developed by theorist B. F. Skinner who contended that behavioral change can be attained by using rewards and punishments to increase or decrease the likelihood of a subject to behave in certain ways.
Training a puppy to “roll over”
Training a dog to roll over is among the most complex tricks that a dog can pull of. This is attributed to the fact that it is a process that requires patience, discipline and utmost concentration from both the trainer and the subject.
According to Appelbaum (2003), training a dog to roll over is a session that incorporates three behaviors (tricks) if the end results are to be successful. In as much as the training may be frustrating, it should be noted that operant behavior is about changing behaviors and does not necessitate the use of force or pain infliction.
For a puppy to successfully obey the command to roll over, it must understand, learn and adhere to the cues used to command it to sit down, lay down on all fours and eventually, roll over. All this stages may need the application of physical help where the trainer physically applies force on some body parts to enable the puppy to understand the command.
As I have mentioned, the process is divided into three parts. The first stage is training the puppy to sit down. In this process, the trainer must at first apply some force on the lower back of the puppy while using the command “sit”.
Each time the dog makes an attempt to obey the command, it should be rewarded by giving it a treat (tasty doggy treats). This will help the dog associate a particular behavior with that reward thereby increasing the chances of a repeat performance.
However, Appelbaum (2003) states that caution should be taken when rewarding a dog during the process of training. For example, in this case, the puppy should be rewarded upon sitting down and not after it comes back to the owner after sitting. This is because the reward will be for the dog coming to the owner and not for sitting down.
In regards to negative enforcements, the puppy should be fitted with a collar and upon the command “sit”, the collar should be pulled up a bit to force the dog to sit down. It should be noted that the word negative reinforcement does not mean inflicting pain. The collar should be pulled up gently otherwise, inflicting pain or scolding the puppy only makes it afraid thereby lessening the chances of success.
The second process is training the puppy to lie down. The verbal cue in this case is “down”. Sitting down enables the dog to sit on its hind legs while lying down requires it to go down on all fours. Chance (2008) reiterates that the success of operant conditioning depends on the reinforcements used and the intervals at which these reinforcements are applied.
To this regard, the puppy should not be rewarded for sitting down but rather it should be punished. In so doing, the dog will follow the command “sit” hoping to get a reward. However, whenever it manages to lie down, it should be rewarded. In due time, the dog will be able to obey the “sit” and “down” commands with ease.
Throughout this process, the trainer should ensure that he/she sticks to well defined cues and hand gestures through each stage. This will ensure that the dog does not get confused due to different cues and gestures.
The third stage is now to train the dog how to roll over. This is the most difficult stage because it requires the trainer to physically roll over the puppy before it understands the concept. As earlier stated, the application of any form of reinforcement is only successful if it is used at the most opportune time. In this regard, positive reinforcement is therefore the most effective during this stage.
What this means is that the puppy should receive the most support and incentives in order for it to master the task at hand. Therefore, the use of the collar may not be effective while the use of tasty doggy treats and verbal praise may increase the chances of the puppy getting a grip of what is expected upon hearing the command.
Types of reinforcements
According to Chance (2008), reinforcement refers to any tool used to strengthen the occurrence of a particular response. There are four documented types of reinforcements. Positive reinforcements are the incentives given to a subject to increase the likelihood of behaving in a particular way. In this case, giving the puppy a treat, rubbing and scratching it accompanied by verbal praises are positive reinforcements.
On the other hand, negative reinforcements refer to a situation where you take away something that is unpleasant to the subject in order to enhance a particular response. For example, loosening the buckles on the collar each time the puppy rolls over, desist using water sprays or even using a softer tone each time the puppy succeeds in doing the task.
Thirdly, punishments refer to the application of aversive tools to discourage a particular response. Examples include hitting the puppy with a newspaper or with a belt if it does something wrong. Finally, extinction refers to the total removal of something to decrease a behavior. In this case, extinction refers to the removal of treats after the dog understands the command.
The most important factors to consider while choosing reinforcement are: the subject and the behavior being nurtured. For example, an older and aggressive dog may respond well to punishments and extinctions while a puppy may do well with positive and negative reinforcements.
In regards to the behavior, potty training a dog may be successful if punishments are used to decrease a behavior while positive reinforcements may be used to teach the dog new tricks.
Maintaining balance between reinforcement and extinction during dog training
As mentioned earlier, it is always advisable to apply the reinforcements or the extinctions at the appropriate time otherwise; the puppy may confuse the cues and end up failing to perform the desired tasks. In this case, the best way to ensure that the puppy maintains the behavior even after training is by using a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement (Appelbaum, 2003).
This is because the schedule makes the learned behavior less susceptible to extinction. A variable ratio schedule of reinforcement refers to a situation whereby the reinforcers are given in accordance to the number of times a good behavior is done. For example, giving the puppy a treat after the third successful roll ensures that in future, it does not stop even after failing to perform the task.
On the other hand, if too much reinforcement is used, the puppy may loose the essence of such tools and may invariably refuse to behave accordingly unless an incentive is offered. Similarly, if too much extinction is used, the puppy may become rebellious and refuse to perform the tasks since they view them as negative aspects affecting their freedom and likings.
Relevance of operant conditioning to my career goals
My personal career goal is to join a higher learning institution as an educator. this is perhaps the most challenging profession since you get to meet different people with different goals and perceptions about you, what you represent and what you do.
As such, operant conditioning will be very beneficial to me when it comes to tackling rebellious students or even to change the negative perceptions students often have towards particular subjects.
Through the use of verbal praises, extra credits for exemplary works and encouraging the weak students to participate in class discussions, I will be able to influence positive change in their attitudes towards school and education. In addition, I will be able to mitigate the negative behaviors by issuing punishments or rewarding good behavior. As such, operant conditioning may prove to be useful in my career.
Operant conditioning has been applied in many fields and through its use, success has been attained. In this study, I have explained how this concept can be applied in training a puppy. In addition, the applicability of the concept to my career has also been highlighted.
The ability to modify behaviors may not only be useful in training pets but can also be applied in training people on how to behave responsibly thereby creating a better society.
Appelbaum, S. (2003). ABC Practical Guide to Dog Training. California: John Wiley and Sons.
Chance, P. (2008). Learning and Behavior: Active Learning Edition. New York: Cengage Learning.