As a dog owner, making your dog listen to you can be stressful. There are many methods to teach a dog to respond to commands, but the most commons are: operant conditioning that uses stimulus, punishment, reinforcement, social learning, and observational learning. This methods have the effectiveness to change the dog’s behavior according to the owner’s desires. There are extensive studies explaining the efficiency of this techniques, and how to get the best results from it. This paper will discuss mainly how dogs learn; Their capability to understand what the trainer want through conditioning; How different stimulus causes different behaviors; The effectiveness of punishment in the dog’s learning ability; How did I teach my beagle, Mia, potty training and obedience tricks using operant conditioning; How I apply operant conditioning to train dogs to have a better chance to be adopted in the shelter. First topic to be discussed is Operant Conditioning. This method basically means learning based on the consequences of responding. Operant conditioning uses punishment or reinforcement as a stimulus to the desired behavior.
There are two types of punishment (positive and negative) and two types of reinforcement (positive and negative), according to the scientist B. F. Skinner, who has developed this principles in 1950’s (McLeod, 2015). The positive punishment is the incorporation of a bad consequence for a bad behavior (McLeod, 2015), for example: If the dog dig in the yard, he will be beaten in the head with a rolled newspaper. There is nothing positive in the positive punishment, and the punishment must have a good timing, otherwise the effectiveness will decrease significantly as shown on the Skinner’s graph below: (Coon & Mitterer, 2016) The negative punishment is considered a better option because it is just the removal of a pleasant stimulus such as toys or play time (Rozas, 2012). If the dog does not follow the command, just start ignoring him, this will cause confusion, and further the dog will learn that that specific behavior will cause you to ignore him. According to Rozas (2012), positive reinforcement is the most popular technique used. It is the reward method. If the dog do something according to the command given, he gets a treat. Therefore, he will be conditioned to do the owner’s command if he wants to be rewarded with food or his favorite toy. The negative reinforcement is when the dog makes what it is said just because he wants to make something bad go away. Shock collars are the perfect example of negative reinforcement (Rozas, 2012). The dog will understand that as long as he does what is asked, nothing bad will happen. Dogs can take a long time to do what the trainer desires, and for that reason the shaping is used. As Skinner said, shaping is gradually molding responses to a final desired pattern (Coon & Mitterer, 2016). Dog can take a long time to understand that if he sits, he will get the reward, but if his butt is pushed gently toward the floor, he will eventually sits. Consequently, he will learn that if he sits he will get the reward. Shaping is a extremely useful technique that accelerate the learning process.
Therefore, the best and most effective ways to condition your dog is using the negative punishment and positive reinforcement combined using the shaping technique, for the simple reason that this options do not cause harm or high level of stress for the animal while the others do. The next method to be introduced is the observational learning, meaning that dogs can learn how to behave just observing their environment. “Dog training methods traditionally rely on individual learning (mainly operant conditioning). Yet dogs are adept in acquiring information socially and are able to imitate humans.” (Fugazza & Miklosi, 2015, p. 146) The Do as I do method for dog training was recently introduced in dog training and the researchers Claudia Fugazza and Adam Miklosi did and experiment to compare both, Do as I do and shaping methods to see the different responses the dogs would have. They came to the conclusion that the do as I do method is more efficient for teaching dogs complex tasks by gathering thirty eight owners and pets, and making them perform two tasks: object related and body movement. Their conclusion was that “this study clearly demonstrates that the use of social learning with the Do as I do method enhances dogs’ memory of the trained actions and their verbal cues.” (Fugazza & Miklosi, 2015, p.146) Further, as a real life experience I taught my dog, which was already one year old when I adopted, how to go potty and obedience tricks. My dog’s name is Mia, and she is a smart and stubborn beagle. When she first came to my home, she was not trained at all. Even though my boyfriend and I brought her out 4 times a day, she still peed and pooped inside.
Then, we finally decided to buy a crate. I was hesitant in the beginning because I thought she would suffer, but afterwards I agreed that this would be the best was to train her to potty outside. Once the crate arrived, every time she peed or pooped on the carpet, we would put her in the crate as a negative punishment, taking away her freedom and leaving her there for hours. Within a month, she improved significantly. Normally I would clean 2 to 3 times after her, but nowadays she does not potty inside the house at all. She was able to learn really fast that the consequence for peeing and pooping inside was the crate, so she did not mess the carpet because she did not want to be punished. Another method used from us was the positive reinforcement, to teach her obedience tricks and also to reinforce right attitudes like potting outside. Mia did not know how to do anything when she came to us. She had been neglected by some heartless person, so she probably did not have someone to teach her any trick. We started with the basic: Sit! Dogs in general have the tendency to automatically sit when they want something, but what they need to learn is to sit every time the owner say sit, not just when they want. Therefore, I started to tell her to sit and if she did it correctly, I would reward her with a treat. with time, the number of treats decrease because she was getting conditioned to sit every time she heard the word. After the sit, she learned how to go down, roll, jump and stand up. Believe it or not, the hardest trick to teach was the shake.
For some reason, Mia did not understand this command. I tried to teach her for days, and finally one day I looked it up in a website how to teach a dog to shake, and the method was simple: I would put the treat in the middle of my fingers, not allowing her to take it, and when she put her paw on my hand with the intention to dig it, I would give her a treat. It was like magic! She understood it in the fifth or sixth time. After a while training with the treat, I noticed that she was already conditioned to give me her paw every time I extended my hands towards her. Today, she does shake and hi-five really easily, even if I give her my feet and say Hi-five, she will put her paw on my feet. Lastly, my work as a volunteer in the Orange County Animal Shelter is another example of how operant condition is present in my life. As many people know, government shelter unfortunately euthanize the animals that are in the shelter for too long. The main reason why those dogs are not getting adopted is because of their behavior. Some of them are too energetic,some are too shy, some play so roughly that they hurt people, so my goal there is to train this dogs to look good in front of potential adopters to have a long and happy life.
First of all, I look at all the dogs we have available, and take out the ones that are more shy, or the ones that are there longer. I make them trust me, showing them I will not hurt them in any way. Then I start showing them toys to play. If they are not interested in toys at all, the treats works most of the time. The same methods I use with my dog, I use with them. I try to teach them at least one simple trick. Sometimes it takes 1 hour, sometimes 3 days. Dogs, like humans, are unpredictable, but they definitely can learn. My biggest accomplishment in the shelter was when a dog that was there for over a month got adopted. I give all the credits for him, but I spent hours with him to make him sit and have a better behavior in the yard. The lady who adopted him was enchanted with his obedience and took him home in that same day. I never saw him again in the shelter, so I think everything worked out well. To conclude, operant conditioning is an extremely effective method, so is observational learning. Observational learning is not effective just in humans, but in animals too. their capacity to learn is proven to be higher than previously thought. Animals know what they want, so teaching them how to get there, is just a matter of patience, timing, constancy, and perseverance.