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Compendium May 2006 (Vol 28, No 5)

Understanding Behavior: "How Animals Learn Operant Conditioning"

by Sophia Yin, DVM, MS (Animal Science)

    Regardless of whether an animal presents for routine vaccinations, chronic dermatologic problems, or sudden onset of inappropriate urination, one issue pervades all patient visits—behavior. The clinician and staff must deal with animal behavior every time they interact with an animal. During each interaction, both humans and animals learn something. What the animal learns is often different from what people intend. For instance, an exuberant dog may drag the technician down the hall, jump on the veterinarian for attention, and then refuse to hold still during the examination. If we proceed with an examination while the dog jumps and wiggles, we are essentially training the dog to perform these behaviors while being examined.

    Typically, such problems in the veterinary hospital are handled with sedatives and manual restraint; however, without taking measures to solve the problem, veterinary staff may contribute to the development of the undesired behavior, making it increasingly difficult to handle the animal both in the clinic and at home. In addition, when the difficult behavior is due to fear, which is common, veterinary staff can cause the fear to escalate and possibly generalize to situations outside the hospital so that the patient develops fear aggression. Fortunately, reversal and prevention of many undesirable behaviors can be addressed through simple changes in how staff and owners interact with animals. We can best make these changes and devise reasonable solutions to behavioral issues once we understand several universal principles of learning that allow clinicians to modify behavior in a wide array of species. This column focuses on operant conditioning (i.e., trial-and-error learning).

    In operant conditioning, the animal repeats behaviors that have desired consequences and avoids behaviors that lead to undesirable consequences. For instance, bears, raccoons, dogs, and rats raid garbage cans because they have learned through trial and error that doing so leads to finding food. Similarly, songbirds visit bird feeders regularly to find food. When the feeders are consistently left empty, the birds no longer visit.

    There are several important terms to know in operant conditioning. A good understanding of these terms allows clinicians to evaluate the knowledge of trainers and behavior consultants as well as that of companies designing products for behavior modification.

    The first two terms are reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will recur. For instance, if you call your dog and give her a treat when she comes to you, she is more likely to come the next time you call her. Punishment is anything that decreases the likelihood that a behavior will recur. For instance, if you call your dog and then yell at her and give her a leash correction because she took too long to come, you will decrease the likelihood of her coming the next time you call her.

    The second set of terms is positive and negative. Positive and negative do not mean good or bad; rather, they should be thought of as a plus sign and a minus sign, respectively. Positive means something is added, and negative means something is subtracted.

    These terms can be combined, creating four categories of operant conditioning (Figure 1):

    • Positive reinforcement
    • Negative reinforcement
    • Positive punishment
    • Negative punishment


    In positive reinforcement, adding something the animal desires increases the likelihood that a behavior will recur. For example, if a dog comes when called and is rewarded with food that it likes, positive reinforcement is being used.

    In negative reinforcement, removing something aversive increases the likelihood that a behavior will recur. For example, negative reinforcement is used when a trainer teaches a dog to come on command by persistently pulling on the leash and then releasing pressure as soon as the dog takes a step toward the trainer. To avoid the pulling, the dog eventually learns to come when called.


    Punishment can also be positive or negative. Clients are most familiar with using positive punishment, in which adding something aversive decreases the likelihood that a behavior will recur. For instance, if a dog raids a garbage can that has been rigged with a motion-activated, high-decibel sound device, the dog will be startled by the loud noise. Thus the dog will be less likely to raid the garbage can again.

    In negative punishment, removing something the dog desires decreases a behavior. For instance, dogs jump on people because they want attention—petting and/or verbal. If a jumping dog is completely ignored, the jumping will eventually cease.

    Classifying Training Techniques

    The terms already discussed seem straightforward at first, but classification of associated training techniques can often become confusing because some techniques may fall into more than one category, depending on how the behavior and technique are described. To avoid confusion, classification of training techniques must be approached in a methodical way.

    First, define the behavior and decide whether you want to increase or decrease it. If the goal is to increase the behavior, by definition, reinforcement will be used. If the goal is to decrease the behavior, by definition, punishment will be used. For example, if you want to stop a dog from jumping on people when it greets them, you can train the dog either to stop jumping on people or to greet people in a more acceptable manner, such as by sitting calmly. If your goal is to train the dog to stop jumping, by definition, punishment will be used. If the goal is to train the dog to sit for attention, reinforcement will be used.

    Next, decide whether you are adding or subtracting something to determine whether the operant category is negative or positive. If you yank the dog's collar to make him stop jumping, you are adding something the dog finds aversive to decrease the behavior. Consequently, you are using positive punishment. (Note: I am not advocating yanking a dog's collar; I am only using this as an example.) Alternatively, you may opt to remove the attention that the dog wants by standing completely motionless and silent to make it clear to the dog that you are ignoring it. By doing so, you will decrease the jumping behavior, so you are still using punishment. However, in this case, you are using negative punishment. To decrease the jumping behavior, you are removing something the dog wants.

    Conversely, if your goal is to train the dog to greet people by sitting, you will be using positive or negative reinforcement. If you wait until the dog sits and then give it a treat, you are using positive reinforcement. If you put a leash and choke chain on the dog, step on the leash to tighten the choke chain, and then immediately release the pressure when the dog sits, you are using negative reinforcement.

    Note that the techniques for negative reinforcement and positive punishment may be similar in that they are aversive and many commercial companies incorrectly use the term negative reinforcement when they should be using the term positive punishment. The primary difference is the emphasis on the goal behavior. In most cases in which aversive techniques are used in training, the goal is to stop a behavior rather than strengthen an appropriate desirable behavior. For instance, antibark collars and ultrasonic devices are not designed to reward dogs for quiet behavior. They are designed to inhibit barking. Thus these products use positive punishment. One reason such products can be ineffective is that they do not focus on rewarding the desired behavior. Consequently, even if the pet wants to avoid performing an inappropriate behavior, this is the primary behavior the pet knows to perform in this context; therefore, the pet may still be highly motivated to perform this behavior until it learns to perform a more appropriate behavior. Thus even when positive punishment is used, it should be combined with positive reinforcement to be most effective.1 Another concern, especially for practitioners, is that the use of aversive techniques can cause behavior problems, which will be discussed further in an upcoming column.

    Which One Is Best?

    Although animals learn through all four categories of operant conditioning both in the wild and in specific training sessions, the category that generally works best in veterinary interactions with animals is positive reinforcement. Although veterinary staff tend to approach behavior problems by asking how we can stop or punish an undesirable behavior, we should focus instead on how to reinforce an alternate desirable behavior and how to avoid reinforcing the undesired behavior. Thus step one in solving common behavior problems is to first identify what is reinforcing the undesirable behavior so that we can remove the reinforcement. The second step is to decide on an alternate behavior to reinforce.

    For example, a caged parrot screeches continuously every day as soon as its owner arrives home from work. To quiet the bird, the owner usually yells at it, but this seems to make the bird screech even more. When the owner is not home, the bird is quiet, even when the owner's roommate is home. The screeching does not start until the owner comes home. What is reinforcing the screeching? You already have two clues: One is that the bird does not screech for the owner's roommate, and the other is that the owner consistently yells at the bird, but the behavior has persisted and perhaps worsened over the past few months. The owner's yelling is reinforcing the screeching. The owner must remove his or her attention from the bird after arriving home. He or she should avoid talking to the bird, looking at it, going close to its cage, and especially yelling at it. Because the behavior has a long history of reinforcement, the owner will probably have to ignore the bird for an extended period of time for many consecutive days before the bird understands that this behavior will no longer be rewarded. When the bird is quiet, the owner should reward it with attention. To increase the durations of silence, the owner should periodically provide attention while the bird is still quiet and before it has a chance to start screaming again. This case is analogous to a dog that barks or cat that meows for attention.

    See the box on Solving Behavior Problems in the Hospital Setting.

    See the Additional Resources box.

    Additional Reading

    Lindsay SR: Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training. Ames, Iowa State University Press, 2000, p 410.

    Overall KL: Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals. St Louis, Mosby, 1997, p 544.

    Reid PJ: Excel-erated Learning. James and Kenneth Publishers, 1996.

    Yin S: How to Behave so Your Dog Behaves. Neptune, NJ, TFH Publications, 2004.

    1. Thompson RH, Iwata BA, Conners J, Roscoe EM: Effects of reinforcement for alternative behavior during punishment of self-injury. J Appl Behav Anal 32:317-328, 1999.

    References »

    NEXT: Abstract Thoughts (May 2006)


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