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Psychological Theories and Methods Behind Training of Service Animals Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 7th, 2021

In recent years, service animals have become an integral part of the lives of Canadian people due to their increased use in different spheres. Multiple studies show that animals provide benefits for their owners, including improved fitness, decreased stress, and improved happiness (Karetnick, 2019). However, service animals are special since they are required to perform tasks for people with physical or mental impairment (Karetnick, 2019).

Therefore, these animals are to go through individual training to be able to perform the required actions. In Canada, one can acquire a service animal from an accredited school or train a dog themselves (Government of British Columbia, n.d.). However, in the second scenario, a dog must pass a public safety test. While the test is difficult to pass, there are no standards concerning the process of training apart from animal abuse prevention laws (Government of British Columbia, n.d.).

Even though people are known to train animals for more than four thousand years, recent advances in psychology have discovered more efficient strategies concerning training practices of service animals. The present paper aims at reviewing the current body of knowledge concerning psychological theories and methods behind the training of service animals and synthesizing the findings.

Classical and Operant Conditioning

Classical conditioning is a training theory that can be applied to all living beings for basic training. This theory was initially developed by Russian professor Pavlov, who designed an experiment where a dog was fed at the same time with a hearing stimulus. After several training sessions, the dog began to associate the stimulus with the food, which caused it to salivate even when food was not provided.

According to Wipperman (2019), the theory is easy to understand and use since it is based on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The theory implies that any outside stimulus, including sound, sight, smell, or event, can be trained to cause a desirable reaction in an organism (Wipperman, 2019). While the method is easy to comprehend, it needed to be developed further to be applied to the training of service animals. Its primary flaw is that it focuses on the subconscious, which is difficult to regulate (Wipperman, 2019). However, classical conditioning is still used in animal training since it is the basis of behaviorism.

Operant conditioning is a more complicated theory in comparison with classical conditioning because it targets conscious actions. The primary contributor to the theory was B.F. Skinner studied Reinforcers and Punishers as stimuli that help to either promote or restrict a behavior (Wipperman, 2019). Chiandetti et al. (2016) define operant conditioning as “a process of learning whereby an association is formed between an arbitrary stimulus and an arbitrary response in virtue of a positive reinforcer” (p. 109). Skinner outlines four quadrants of training, including positive reinforcement, negative punishment, positive punishment, and negative reinforcement (Wipperman, 2019). These quadrants represent strategies of different efficiency that can be used to train animals.

Positive reinforcement is the most efficient quadrant for training that was documented to have been used for more than a century (Chiandetti et al. 2016). It incorporates giving an animal a reward for the desired behavior, such as providing a treat to a dog when it sits down or petting it when it does not bark on the doorbell. Negative punishment focuses on removing the positive when an animal performs unwanted actions. Walking a dog away from someone it wants to see when it barks or jumps is an excellent example of the method. According to Wipperman (2019), the method is the second most effective for dog training.

Positive punishment is a method focused on penalizing an animal for undesirable behavior using physical force or restraint (Wipperman, 2019). For instance, when a dog eats from its owner’s table, it can be hit with a stick, which is intended to restrict such behavior. Even though the method is marketed to bring fast results, it has no scientifically proven efficiency and often results in injuries of the pet or their owners (Wipperman, 2019).

The most inefficient quadrant is negative reinforcement, which implies that pain is removed only when the desired behavior is reached. The method always damages the animal’s nervous system, and they often become too afraid to do anything because of fear of pain (Wipperman, 2019). While the two quadrants described above are unethical and inefficient, they are still being used by animal trainers. Classical and operant conditioning together are viewed as associative learning theories.

Classical and Operant Conditioning in Use

The examples of translating the two theories into practice are numerous. Perhaps one of the most popular high-tech methods is e-collar training. The technique implies using collars that emit n electric shock, vibration, or citronella spray onto the dog when it performs an unwanted action or until the desired behavior is achieved (Wipperman, 2019). For instance, when a dog sits on a couch, its owner may press the button to punish the dog for it. It is an example of how positive punishment of operant conditioning is used. Another strategy of using an e-collar is to shock the dog until it walks in a straight line, which is utilizing negative reinforcement. The problem with using e-collar is the difference in the way people and animals think.

Animals do not feel guilt, and when they are punished for being on the couch in the presence of their owner, they will avert doing that only when the owner is around (Wipperman, 2019). However, when he or she is away, the animal is likely to continue the behavior, which is a sign of failure to learn (Wipperman, 2019). Therefore, e-collar training is not an effective training method since it is based on the two most inefficient quadrants of operant conditioning.

Despite its evident drawbacks of the method, pet owners seem to have become e-collar happy despite aggressive opposition from animal rights activists. Even though there are no legal restrictions of the method in Canada, in the UK, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and parts of Australia, the use of shock collars may lead to fines and even time in jail (Wipperman, 2019). However, there are active supporters of e-collar training, such as Todd Agnew.

In his article published in Sporting Classics Daily, Agnew (2015) argues that responsible use of e-collar is acceptable and efficient. Historically, people have been using harsher methods for stimulating animals, such as whips or brute force (Agnew, 2015). E-collar provides an opportunity to perform different levels of stimulation depending on the situation, which proved to be an efficient method to regulate dogs’ behavior (Agnew, 2015). Therefore, e-collars do not seem to be more harmful than leashes when used responsibly (Agnew, 2015). Therefore, any trainer in Canada is free to decide if he or she prefers to use e-collars.

Another method that is also considered innovative is clicker training. According to Chiandetti et al. (2016), an increased number of dog owners tend to utilize clicker training due to its perceived benefits and harmlessness. The method combines both theories, classical and operant conditioning, by introducing a secondary stimulus. The idea behind clicker training is to mark the exact behavior that leads to a reward and fill in the delay between the desired action and associated benefits (Chiandetti et al., 2016).

While other secondary stimuli, such as whistle or voice, can be used, clicker has proven to be the most effective. However, there is little scientific evidence that proves the method to be effective for animal training, and people are forced to rely on expert opinion (Chiandetti et al., 2016).

In order to contribute to the body of evidence concerning clicker training, Chiandetti et al. (2016) conducted an experimental study designed to prove the hypothesis that clicker training is more efficient than training with whistles, words, or without secondary reinforcer. Even though the sample size of 51 limits the generalizability of the results, Chiandetti et al. (2016) declare clicker training advantageous in comparison with other strategies utilizing classical and operant conditioning.

The most frequently used method for animal training based on operant conditioning is a positive reinforcement style, which is also called a force-free approach. This method utilizes the two most efficient quadrants identified by Skinner, which are positive reinforcement and negative punishment (Wipperman, 2019). This method is the most scientifically proven method for training dogs, which utilizes the simple logic that if a dog cannot perform its duties in a situation, it is not allowed in the situation (Wipperman, 2019). When applying this approach, no force is used, and the dog is rewarded for the desired behavior and redirected from unwanted behavior (Wipperman, 2019).

The same method is often used for training horses as it does not impair the psychological well-being of the animal and builds positive relationships with it (McLean & Christensen, 2017). In short, when training an animal, the force-free approach is the most common choice among trainers due to the absence of dangerous side effects of the learning process. However, the method is associated with bringing fast results, and trainers are to be patient while applying them.

Competing Stimuli

One of the primary problems with methods incorporating classical and operant conditioning is the fact that it does not take into consideration cases when several stimuli are present. For instance, in the presence of other dogs, the dog under training may not respond to treats or e-collar zaps. Therefore, it is vital to make sure that the animal is engaged with the trainer. McLean and Christensen (2017) emphasize the importance of a calm environment for the animal not to be overly aroused by uncontrolled stimuli. If the learning environment has multiple sources of distraction, the outcomes of training may be unpredictable (McLean & Christensen, 2017).

Frawley (2017) also mentions competing stimuli as a considerable barrier to training dogs. Therefore, it is of extreme importance to make sure that the owner or the trainer is the most compelling stimuli for the dog. This can be reached by training dogs to engage with the owner in different environments when asked (Frawley, 2017). In order to achieve that, motivation theory was introduced.

The essence of the motivation theory is substituting the negative word “distraction” with the word “motivator” and defining various levels of motivators. Frawley (2017) insists that the owner should find proper ways to become the most interesting thing for the dog. While the theory has its supporters among professionals, it has not been discussed in the scientific or professional literature. Therefore, research is needed to confirm the theory using relevant methods.

Apart from Frawley’s approach, there are other methods that prevent animals from getting distracted by problem stimuli. McLean and Christensen (2017) promote the idea of using non-associative learning techniques, which include desensitization techniques and habituation to aversive stimuli. Desensitization is a method for achieving habituation, which, in turn, is the process of response decrement (McLean & Christensen, 2017).

Trainers may practice systematic desensitization, counter-conditioning, overshadowing, or flooding, depending on the situation, to make an animal not react to problem stimuli (McLean & Christensen, 2017). Systematic desensitization is a technique used to change the behavior of people; however, it is also applicable for animal learning (McLean & Christensen, 2017). The term refers to the gradual habituation of an arousing stimulus by exposing the animal to the problem stimulus in small portions (McLean & Christensen, 2017).

The portion gradually increases, and animals become less sensitive to them. Counter-conditioning is providing stimulus of a higher order in the presence of a problem stimulus (McLean & Christensen, 2017). Overshadowing is using several stimuli that provoke the same reaction, while flooding is “restraining the animal from remaining in the situation which it fears while avoidance responses are prevented” (McLean & Christensen, 2017, p. 12). The approaches may be used simultaneously to achieve the desired effect.

Competing stimuli training is of extreme importance to service animals since they are naturally exposed to public places with numerous distractions. In Canada, if a person wants his or her pet to become a service animal, they are to pass a public safety test (Government of British Columbia, n.d.). This implies that animals are to be relaxed when exposed to noises, food, and other animals, which excludes aversive behaviors and fear (Karetnick, 2019). Therefore, animal trainers are to choose theories and methods that allow the dogs to perform their duties and perform commands even in the most hectic places.


There are no rules about how a service animal should be trained except for animal abuse prevention laws. Therefore, all existing theories and methods can be used to prepare a service animal. There are two types of theories concerning animal learning, associative and non-associative. Associative animal learning is connected with methods based on classical and operant conditioning. The methods include a force-free approach, e-collar training, and clicker training, among which the force-free approach is the most scientifically supported one. Non-associative animal learning is based on desensitization, with the primary technique being habituation.

The habituation is achieved using four primary techniques, which are systematic desensitization, counter-conditioning, overshadowing, and flooding. These approaches aim at training animals to avoid problematic stimuli in situations with competing stimuli. This skill is of extreme importance for service animals since they naturally operate in environments with numerous distractions. Motivation theory promotes teaching engagement with the trainer as a method to address the problem of competing stimuli. While all methods described in the present paper can be used for training service animals, the literature review revealed that the most popular methods are based on positive reinforcement and negative punishment introduced in operant conditioning theory.


Agnew, T. (2015). . Sporting Classics Daily. Web.

Government of British Columbia. (n.d.). . Web.

Chiandetti, C., Avella, S., Fongaro, E., & Cerri, F. (2016). Can clicker training facilitate conditioning in dogs? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 184, 109-116.

Frawley, E. (2017). The theory of motivation in dog training. Leerburg. Web.

Karetnick, J. (2019). . AKC. Web.

McLean, A. N., & Christensen, J. W. (2017). The application of learning theory in horse training. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 190, 18-27. Web.

Wipperman, T. (2019). K9DEB. Web.

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