Learning by trial and error – part 1 – introduction



This is my first written blog in a a good while. I have been motivated to write again for a number of reasons, not least the amount of bad information out there on dog training, what works and what doesn’t and why it works.

Learning by trial and error, or Operant Conditioning, is the way organisms, including us and dogs, work out which behaviours work and which don’t. There are four factors at play during operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment.

We also need to have a basic understanding of learning by association which I have covered in my previous blog



I’ll take a step back briefly and explain a little about learning by association (classical conditioning). Learning by association is always going on every time we interact with our dogs.

In high school, I studied both French and Latin. My Latin teacher was an amazing man and teacher and I thoroughly enjoyed going to his classes. I did well in the exam and enjoyed the learning process. My French teacher on the other hand, although a good enough teacher, shouted at us, berated and belittled some of us. I passed French but did not enjoy learning French.

The method in which we learn is not only important, it is crucial. We can learn in many environments, but learning in an environment which promotes learning, makes us better learners.

Our dogs absolutely can and do learn using e-collars, shouting etc, but I’m pretty sure they don’t enjoy the process.

By teaching using only non aversive training, if done properly, the dog enjoys both the learning process and performing the task she is learning.

So to start, I’ll define what the scientific definitions of reinforcement and punishment are (remember, these are not the common uses).

Reinforcement – anything which increases the duration, intensity and/or frequency of the immediately preceding behaviour.

Punishment – anything which decreases the duration, intensity and/or frequency of the immediately preceding behaviour.

In short, reinforcement trains more behaviour, punishment trains less behaviour.

1. Dog sits and gets a treat – sitting is reinforced (hopefully)

2. Frightened dog lunges and barks at scary man with beard. Scary man goes away -lunging and barking is reinforced.

3. Dog pulls on lead and is corrected on a metal or shock collar – pulling is punished

4. Dog barks at us and we immediately leave the room – barking is punished.

Now remember, when doing this, it actually has to effect the behaviour, our intention is irrelevant. So, if your dog is barking and you tell him to shut up, the dog actually needs to reduce barking in the future, not at the time, for shouting to be an effective punisher.

In the next part, I’ll discuss positive reinforcement.

Constructive comments and questions are welcome as always.


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