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  • DateAugust 21, 2019

Dog Training Jargon Basics: Part One

I read a blog recently that was aimed at the average person in the street and its content was a subject very dear to my heart.  They wanted to encourage dog owners to actively train their dogs to prevent unwanted behaviours.  This would reduce the number of dogs that end up in rescue centres because they pull on the lead (see blog 4!), or jump up, or show aggression towards people or dogs (see blogs two and three!).  Most of these behaviours can be solved with a basic knowledge of behaviour and training (all except aggression).  But the problem with this blog was that right away it launched into the need to use positive reinforcement training and how we should not use negative reinforcement or positive punishment.  Now, I agree wholeheartedly, but did I just lose you?  Yep, even I stopped reading after a paragraph because of the jargon, and I have a pretty decent understanding of what these terms mean. 

It upsets me because I believe the article alienated a huge proportion of it’s target audience purely because it made dog training theory sound completely inaccessible to non-dog trainers. 

I wanted to cover, in this and future blogs, some of the most used terms in an accessible way so that the next time you see a post that uses this language you might have a Scooby what it’s on about, and you hopefully won’t feel alienated – I’m also, to be honest, writing it as a refresher for me on the terminology!   I will do a couple of these blogs so it’s not a massive overwhelming overload! 

I wanted to start with Classical and Operant Conditioning and what those terms actually mean.  I also think it’s really important to remind everyone about the science that underpins the learning of ALL animals, dogs, cats, giraffes, macaws and humans especially with the recent furore following Channel Four’s suggestion that people should “Train” their children like their dogs, which is not as ridiculous as people would have you believe!

Classical conditioning or Pavlovian Conditioning or Respondent Behaviour

OK, so already we have three different names for the same thing!  Everyone has their preference. 

  • Classical conditioning is probably the most well known;
  • Pavlovian conditioning attributes it to the Russian scientist who (accidentally) discovered it, Ivan Pavlov;
  • Respondent Behaviour is the currently favoured term as it describes what it is, a behaviour that is a response to a stimulus (a stimulus is a thing or event that evokes a specific functional reaction in an organ or tissue).

Respondent behaviours are reflexes which are fully functioning without the need for our bodies to learn.  They are a “response” to stimuli in the environment and are not affected by consequences. 

A basic respondent behaviour example would be, when the light is bright, your iris contracts to reduce the size of your pupil.  The consequence is then that the amount of light entering your eye is reduced.  Your iris will always contract/relax in the presence of light (the stimuli), and the amount of contraction will be dependent on the amount of light.

Other respondent behaviour examples include jumping at a loud noise, goose bumps when it’s cold, sweating when it’s warm etc.

Respondent behaviour was discovered by Pavlov in the 1890s in the famous ‘bell rings/dog salivates’ experiment.

He noticed that the dogs in his experiment began to salivate with certain environmental conditions (stimuli) that predicted food was coming.  He expected salivation when food was placed in front of the dog but he then saw salivation when the dogs heard his assistant’s footsteps so he wanted to explore what he was seeing.

  • Food is called an unconditioned stimulus (US) which results in an unconditioned response (UR) in the salivation of the dog;

He tested what would happen if he used a metronome (not the famous bell!) just before presenting food.  He would start the metronome and check the reaction from the dogs without the presence of food. Unsurprisingly:

  • The metronome was a “neutral stimulus” (NS) which resulted in no response from the dogs;

He then introduced the metronome just before feeding the dogs and after a few repetitions:

  • The metronome became a “conditioned stimulus” (CS) which predicted to the dogs that food was coming, so they started to salivate when they heard it.  This is called a “conditioned response” (CR).

Pairing the metronome with food meant that the metronome went from meaning nothing to the dog (neutral stimulus) to predicting food (conditioned stimulus).

In summary:

Food (US) —————————————————————————- Salivation (UR)
Metronome (US) —————————————————————— No response
Metronome + Food (CS +US) ————————————————- Salivation (UR)
Metronome (CS) ——————————————————————- Salivation (CR)

The American version of The Office did an excellent job of presenting a Pavlovian type experiment!  Enjoy:

In summary, without really needing to understand the nitty gritty about unconditioned, neutral and conditioned stimuli and unconditioned and conditioned responses, Respondent Conditioning is basically reflexive behaviours that are not affected by consequences!  New stimuli are learned (the metronome) and not new behaviours (we are born with them!).  But stimuli can be paired (like the metronome and food, or the sound of the computer shutting down and presentation of a mint!) to give a conditioned response to a previously unrelated stimuli.

Hopefully I’ve expertly and straightforwardly explained it all :-S!

Operant conditioning/learning

One name, phew!  In operant learning new behaviours are learned, and existing behaviours are modified based on the past results of doing them.  Operant learning was originally described by Thorndike:

“any behaviour that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated, and any behaviour followed by unpleasant consequences is likely to be stopped”


Thorndike’s Law of Effect, 1898

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) then built on this theory to massively advance our understanding of learning and behaviour.

Operant learning is described as having a “three-term contingency”, or ABC’s, and we can use this to analyse operant behaviours to see what’s in the environment that is cueing the behaviour, what function the behaviour is serving the individual, and if we want to modify that behaviour then we can see what about the environment or the consequences we need to change. 

  • A = Antecedent (the environmental events that cue the behaviour)
  • B = Behaviour (the response)
  • C = Consequence (what occurs immediately after the behaviour)

For example:

A: cue from me of “push”

B: Sweep puts his nose to the door and pushes the door closed

C: click and presentation of a reinforcer (food)

We can predict with this example, that Sweep will continue to perform the behaviour.

In summary, operant learning is affected by the environmental “cues” (otherwise known as antecedents) and the consequences – if they are aversive we learn to not repeat the behaviour.

A: Hot plate on the stove

B: Touch your hand to it

C: Feel pain in your hand

And we can predict, with this example, that next time there is a hot plate on the stove, you will take more care!

An example of both respondent and operant learning

If a stimuli becomes associated with something else it can, quite often, result in a fear response. 

Odie has learned in the past that the appearance of a strange dog means bad things happen – it has been paired with a painful consequence such as a tightening of the lead, or tense owners and has become a Conditioned Stimulus which has led to operant behaviour:

A: dog appears

B: lunging and barking on the lead

C: we leave

We can predict that his behaviour will be maintained unless we intervene with changing the environment, this helps us come up with a counter-conditioning and desensitisation training plan:

A: dog at a distance Odie is comfortable with

B: calm behaviours

C: food is delivered

The Big Bang Theory showed a wonderful example of Sheldon shaping Penny using Operant conditioning with positive reinforcement (the consequence is that he gives her a chocolate every time she does something he likes!):



In summary, I’ve described two types of learning here – Respondent and Operant and hopefully you can see that we learn differently from each process. 

“Whereas the organism undergoing Pavlovian conditioning [respondent behaviours] may be described as passive, in operant learning the organism is necessarily active.”

Chance (2003)

If you have any questions or have clarifications for me or you need clarification from me, please comment below and I will try to help 😊

Thanks to Dr Susan Friedman for a very recent refresher for me.  I am currently undertaking her Living and Learning with Animals Course (LLA) – her website has a ton of free resources and is definitely worth a look if you are at all interested in finding out more information.  See http://www.behaviorworks.org/ where there are a whole load of free resources to help you do your own ABC’s (http://www.behaviorworks.org/htm/downloads_worksheets.html)

Further Reading:

Carol Milner

About Carol Milner

I currently live in Weymouth, Dorset (originally from Beverley in East Yorkshire). I am a certified dog trainer, graduating from the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional course in October 2016. I have owned dogs since 2001 when I got my first rescue dog Jack, a mutt extraordinaire. When I lost him I spent two years fostering dogs for a local charity and as a result I gained Odie and Sweep. Odie is the reason I became interested in training and behaviour. He demonstrates "aggressive" behaviours towards other dogs. I chose clicker training because I saw how much confidence it gives both my boys and I train mostly as a hobby with my own dogs and cats and spend my spare time with them and continuing my training and behaviour education with webinars and seminars. My passion as a trainer is in force free husbandry. If we can teach dangerous exotic animals to accept blood draws voluntarily then we have no excuse in not teaching it to our animals. I work full time as a marine biologist (to fund my dog habit!), a job I have done for 20 years. It has taught me to avoid the use of jargon while not dumbing down content, a skill I hope will help me produce a helpful blog!

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