Classic vs Operant Conditioning

(Another piece of research for my ISCP Diploma coursework. This time the question was about the differences between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning. When I answer these questions, I find it’s always helpful to visualise myself in the situations, and then it’s almost like I’m describing what unfolds before me).

Classic conditioning in dogs:
Classic conditioning can be described also as “Associative Learning”. If you show a dog a nice juicy piece of steak, he will start salivating and getting excited. It’s an unconditioned response, meaning the dog hasn’t taught himself to do this, but rather his body’s natural response takes over. It is a physical, automatic response to an external stimulus. By adding associations to an action, and by repetition, the dog learns to connect two or more separate events, and give the same response. For example, Dr Ivan Petrovich Pavlov famously conditioned his dogs to drool at the sound of a bell being rung, by exposing them to many repetitions of the appearance of dog food being accompanied by the sound of a bell ringing. The dogs became so accustomed to the sound of a bell being rung coinciding with the appearance of food, that later, when Pavlov rang the bell without bringing any food, the dogs would still drool. They had learned to associate the ringing of a bell with the appearance of food, whether the food actually appeared or not. Another example of Classic conditioning is when the dog has associated the rattling of its leash with the prospect of going out for a walk, and will get excited whenever it hears the leash being rattled. He’s learnt that Leash = Walk.

Operant conditioning in dogs:
For Operant conditioning, the dog has to learn that his actions have “Consequences”. Good behaviour is likely to get rewarded by food or praise; bad behaviour by punishment or being ignored. With repetition and practice, the dog learns which behaviours get rewarded and which won’t. If the experience is unpleasant, for example, the use of a shock/electric or spray collar for nuisance barking, the dog learns by trial and error to associate his barking with a shock, and may stop his behaviour (aversion therapy, besides being cruel, doesn’t always work, some dogs just never figure it out and instead shut down and become withdrawn, and their personalities change). Dogs normally thrive on a “What’s in it for me?” principle, the higher value a reward is, the more likely the dog will want to work towards getting it … so for a dog that barks at the gate for no reason, and its owner shouts at it to “Shut Up!”, the dog learns to associate barking with getting a response from its owner (not with shutting up, as dogs don’t understand English per se). If, however, every time the dog goes out and before it starts its nuisance barking, its owner calls it over and gives it a high value treat, it will learn to associate being outside and quiet with getting called and a treat. By making it unpredictable when the owner will go outside to call the dog and give it a treat, the dog learns to wait in anticipation, may even decide it’s better to just hang around outside the front door, closer to the prospect of that treat, and is less likely to engage in any activity that may disrupt the giving of the reward.



Operant Conditioning can be used alongside Classical Conditioning. For example, if Leash = Walk (Classical Conditioning), then teaching the dog to Sit first, before the leash is attached to his collar, adds an action the dog must perform first before he gets his walk. Thus, Sit + Leash = Walk, where the Walk is the Reward.

With Operant Conditioning, the Rewards may be Reinforcers or Punishers. Reinforcers teach the dog to repeat “good” behaviours, while Punishers teach the dog to not do “bad” behaviours again in a hurry. (As an advocate of Positive Reinforcement, I try always to not use Punishers, but rather reward the desired behaviour with treats, praise and cuddles).


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