A Note on Conditioning

By Adam Romsdahl CPDT-KA

For a long time the difference between classical conditioning and operant conditioning have somewhat eluded me. Now, I’m not saying that I fully comprehend the difference yet. I can give you the definition of each and tell you that I understand the difference in theory. But in practice it’s tough to understand which you are using when. But instead of “one or the other” situation, a parallel correlation is becoming clearer.

When understanding conditioning in and of itself, reinforcers need to be accounted for. The basic punishment vs reinforcement is usually convoluted. Most people hear the word positive and associate it with only good things, also people assume the words negative and punishment equate to bad things; “something I would NEVER do to MY dog”. Though when you start to understand the basics, the terms take on a whole new life. Here are some gross examples, to be covered more in depth in another post:

Positive is used as a term to mean, something applied.
Whereas Negative is used as, something removed.
Reinforcement is something wanted.
Punishment is something not wanted.

Positive reinforcement is applying (or giving) something that the subject wants.
Example: “Do your homework and I’ll take you out for pizza”.

Negative reinforcement is taking away something the subject doesn’t want.
Example: ”If you get all A’s this semester you won’t have to take the final.”

Positive punishment is applying something the subject does not want.
Example: “If you push your sister one more time, you’ll be sent to your room!”

Negative punishment is taking away something that they want.
Example: “If you get bad grades, you can’t play xbox for the summer.”

These are terms mainly applying to operant conditioning. A common example of operant conditioning is a dog learning how to sit when you say “sit”. You give the command, they do the command, then they get a reward (positive reinforcement). You are consciously trying to alter behavior through consequence.

But there are more factors involved. Giving a dog a treat is positive reinforcement, but when you withhold something that the dog wants (i.e. the treat) that is technically labeled as negative punishment. So which is it? Positive reinforcement or negative punishment? The answer I’ve come to is… both. You can’t reward something without the reward being withheld first; It’s arguably the promise of the treat that motivates. The same could be said with punishment, if you want the dog to comply using positive punishment (e.g. yelling or smacking (not recommended, nor condoned)) then they want the threat of your anger or punishment to go away, otherwise known as negative reinforcement. Therefore, at least in these examples, types of reinforcers have to work in concert with others.

So, is sending a child to their room in fact an example of positive punishment by applying a grounding? Or could it be considered negative punishment in that you are taking away their freedom?

By definition, when you want the likelihood that a behavior will repeat itself (I say sit, dog sits) you want to use reinforcement. When you want a behavior to be eliminated, you use punishment (“get off the couch you BAD DOG!”). Therefore when dealing with operant behavior, one might heavily favor the respective consequence method, even though the reciprocal must exist in concert.

The other method, classical conditioning is most commonly known through Pavlov. Ring a bell? HAHAHAHA!…. I hate myself. Famously Ivan Pavlov taught dogs to salivate whenever they heard a bell ring. He did this by associating food with ringing a bell by pairing the two together. Through classical conditioning, the dog is less in charge of its reaction (typically visceral). This is also known as associative or respondent behavior.

Classical conditioning can be used to create either positive or negative associations. For example, take ice cream truck music; If every time the ice cream truck comes to your street and you get a delicious cone, then going forward the music playing in the distance will make you happy and excited. On the other hand, if every time you heard that same ice cream truck music something bad happened to you, like your kids begging you for money, the sound of the truck might elicit an annoyance or a similar negative emotion.

Here’s where it’s important to really understand the difference and correct application of proper motivators. A dog can have a negative association and react (fight or flight is a common reaction). They can also have a positive association and react (go crazy with excitement from an owner grabbing their leash).

So where does operant vs classical conditioning come in? It’s not a “VERSUS”, that’s the whole thing I’ve come to realize. It’s an “AND”.

When one teaches their dog something, there’s no choice but to associate a reaction. Therefore the motivating technique is very important. If you are teaching them to do something like sit, or walk next to you, it is absolutely beneficial to have the association be positive so they WANT to repeat this behavior, so focus on reinforcement. When teaching them to do something like “get off the couch” it is important that they understand you don’t want them doing that behavior and have a negative association with sitting on the couch, so focus on punishment techniques. (If you were to give them a treat for getting off the couch, the likelihood of getting back on the couch to get the treat will increase).

In conclusion, classical conditioning is going to happen no matter what. They will always create an association with an activity or behavior. Choosing the right type of motivator and/or consequence while operantly conditioning is the key to improving results and the happiness of you and your pup.

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