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The Rational Participant

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How does one train a dog?

You just cued your dog to “sit” and your dog did nothing.  Stared at you, and nothing happened.  What should you do?

If you throw your dog a cookie while he lies there not responding at all, are you teaching your dog to stay down when you signal a sit?

95% of dog trainers will say that feeding a dog for failure to perform is bad training.  To “reward” an incorrect response goes against the laws of learning!  Dogs do more of what works for them, so if ignoring your cue gets a cookie, then the dog will ignore you more!  The right answer would be to either ignore the behavior or punish it, depending on your philosophy.

And they would be wrong as often as not,  because operant conditioning presumes a conscious and rational participant that is striving to maximize his or her well being at that moment in time, and a very high percentage of the time, our dogs are not behaving in an operant fashion at all!   Operant conditioning can only work if the dog is 1) aware that his behavior matters at that time 2) knows how to adapt his behavior to get the best possible outcome and 3) cares about the result – at that moment in time.

Here’s an example:

Your dog is in a glass room behind a soundproof wall.  He cannot hear you.  You cue a sit and…he does not sit!  What should you do?

Remember, he can’t hear you!  So should you march in that room and correct him into a sit?  Of course not.  If he can’t hear the cue, then he can’t operate in his own best interest – he is not conscious of that fact that training is taking place, let alone that his behavior matters.

How about if your dog is in a training building with a dog lunging on his leash behind your training area, which is causing your dog a good deal of distress?  You cue your dog to sit and…he does not sit!  What should you do?

Remember, you gave the cue!  Should you march over there and correct him into a sit?  No!  Because at that moment in time, your dog is not participating in your training game!  His rational instinct is to preserve his safety and as long as he perceives that the lunging dog is a threat to his safety, then he is not in a place to do anything with your training.  You cannot use operant conditioning at that moment in time, because his best interest is not to attend to you. So while his behavior is certainly rational in the greater scheme of things, it’s not focused on you or learning your games, so no training can take place at that time.

But what if that lunging dog is on leash and cannot get to your dog?  Your dog has nothing to fear!

That’s irrelevant because that conclusion is from your point of view and it’s the dog’s opinion that matters. If your dog thinks that other dog is a threat to his safety then your perspective is not relevant.  And anyway, fear is rarely logical.  Even if the dog can recognize that the dog cannot get to him, that doesn’t mean he’ll just move on.

So what should you do?  You’ve given your dog a sit cue and nothing has happened.  What now?

The question to ask yourself is this; if my dog’s emotional state is not in a place to respond to operant conditioning, what can I do to make him feel better so that he WILL be in a place to respond to me?

Switch to classical conditioning.

It may well be time to stop training altogether while you puzzle out your solution.  While your dog might not be receptive to operant conditioning when he’s feeling stressed or fearful, he is always a participant in classical conditioning, so the best thing that you can do in a case like this is try and make him feel better.  Train his emotions through classical conditioning rather than his conscious behaviors.

It doesn’t matter much if your dog is not participating because he’s bored, tired, scared, doesn’t care about your consequences, doesn’t hear you or doesn’t understand you. If he hasn’t engaged in the learning process, then the only option you have is to either switch to classical conditioning or change the parameters of your operant conditioning; train when he’s not bored, not tired, not scared, change the consequences, clarify your cues, or train him to understand what you want.  And all the while, give some thought to how you can modify your overall training plan so that he’s a whole lot more excited about training, regardless of the specifics of the day, so that he begins to opt in all or most of the time, rather than opting out.

This is so hard for us trainers!

Your dog is not manipulating his way through every moment of life!  “giving it away” goes against everything many of us have been taught to believe about dog training. The phrase ‘the dog is always learning’ has come to mean that every moment of our dog’s life needs to be seen as their attempt to get more, as if they are constantly thinking about what they can get and how to avoid what they don’t like. And that is simply not true. Most of life just happens – it’s an emotional reality -not a conscious manipulative one.

If you come to accept this reality, then you can stop feeling like you have to manipulate your dog every moment as well.  The rest just falls into place.



About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

18 responses »

  1. Your post was perfect timing!! Feel much better. Thanks so much and take care always.

    Sincerely, BG

    Pine Ridge Sanctuary
    Barbara C. Glancy
    21100 SW 300th Street
    Homestead, FL 33030
    Ph (305) 247-4839


  2. Feeling a little silly, but I am not sure I understand the difference between Operant Conditioning and Classical Conditioning.

  3. Classical conditioning is created by pairing two events (A and B) together so that a dog (or person) becomes emotionally or physically conditioned to respond to A and B the same way. If Pavlov rings a bell and then gives food many times, eventually a dog or a person will begin to salivate at the sound of the bell. It is not learned nor does it require conscious thought.

    I’m not sure how Denise means it here.

    My guess is:
    Receiving a cookie will create a positive emotional response in the dog. Hearing “sit” a second time will pair the cookie with the “sit” cue.

    (this is backwards of operant conditioning where dog does a learned response to a cue in anticipation of a reinforcing result).

    With classical conditioning the dog will then experience the cue in a positively conditioned manner, and snap into operant mode and happily sit. Not only will it make the dog ready to sit, but it will load the cue in a positive manner.
    It will be the opposite of poisoning a cue.

    Is that right Denise? Or way off?
    Can we all test this?

    janet Amighi

    • The simple answer is that operant conditioning is when the dog recognizes the relationship between two things – if I do this then that thing happens. (if I sit then I get a cookie) . It is a choice that the dog makes to either get something that is desired (a cookie) or to avoid something that is not wanted (if I don’t sit on cue then I get punished).

      Classical conditioning is not something that the dog chooses – it just happens. If I am with my mom at the training building I get cookies. I like cookies. And then, over time, the dog likes being with mom at the training building because the dog associates the training building with mom and cookies. That is a positive association to training and mom – classically conditioned through cookies. The dog did not think about being happy. The dog did not choose it. It just happens. By the same token, if I’m in the training building and bad things happen – then I also have a classically conditioned response – I feel “fear” in the building, which may also be associated with mom. Some dogs condition to bad experience very easily and others – not so much.

      Classical conditioning is always happening in every training session – operant conditioning is not. So if things go south in training – feed the dog cookies for free so that they still want to train with you and be with you. Then when they are in a good frame of mind, they can begin thinking – and earning (operant conditioning) those cookies rather than just eating them. A good rule of thumb – only train a happy dog.

      • Carole Raschella

        Wow, I was with Lydia, not understanding classical vs. operant conditioning. Boy, did I just learn something! I know that I’ve had this explained to me countless times, and thought I understood. Not. But now I get it! It all falls into place! Awesome post…thank you so much!!

      • This is so great , thankyou for clarifying this for me . I’ve really struggled with remembering the difference between the two , now it’s been written so simply I get it .I’ve also screen shot so I can reread to keep reminding myself !! Great article and great live FaceTime , learnt so much because you express stuff in a way that makes it relevant and understandable . My dog gets very aroused in woodland and now I understand it’s not a conscious choice and it’s no wonder I can’t get her to act on cues . I can stop being frustrated with her , go back to basics , not expect stuff she simply can’t cope with when that excited and learn to cope in this environment. Thanks

  4. Yes, I have trained a highly nervous dog — in places she finds stressful. ALL she needs to do is be there with me. Very important training for nervous dogs 🙂 (Mind you she doesn’t take treats, but is calmed by contact with me.)

  5. What a great explanation, Denise. Thank you so much. Barb in Tasmania.

  6. It doesn’t seem that easy to switch? Are there classical conditioning exercises to proof recalls? Expecially for entire males of a less biddable breed such as a primative spitz breed (who have no interest in earning/eating cookies or playing with toys)???

    • Remember, classical conditioning is always happening. So “switching” would just mean stop doing operant conditioning (training things). I’m not sure what you mean by “classical conditioning to proof recalls” Classical conditioning would mean being with you is a very positive experience which would have a good effect on your recalls, but it doesn’t “teach” it. If your dog has no interest in learning, eating cookies or playing with toys, then what is your motivator? If you truly have nothing that the dog wants, then no conditioning (either classical or operant) is relevant at all, unless you’re going to switch to punishment to affect behavior. Which may (or may not) work to teach the behavior, but isn’t going to create a positive classically conditioned response. My guess, from what I’m reading, is that you might want to be focusing more on selecting the correct training environments to get behaviors and less on proofing or worrying about the issues brought up in this particular blog post.

      • Ok thanks for the clarification. I think i now understand what you mean by the terms. Basically classical conditioning is just helping to make the dog respond emotionally to an object/environment /image/signal but it is not a specific technique that can be applied used to train commands. It is more about establishing the right emotional response first to increased their willingness to participate and learn through operant conditioning. Please let me know if I still have this wrong. Thanks!

  7. WOW, I had to read it twice and then bingo, not only did I get it, but it explained to me why when I thought I was doing OC, ha ha I was doing CC and things weren’t always going as I wanted…
    Thank you so much

    • What do you think Denise and others about Susan Friedman’s idea of asking for a different behavior thats very reliable, if a dog misses a cue. The idea is that you reanimate the dog with a positive experience, “spin” click treat. and then when you ask again for the first behavior , the dog is more likely to feel good and do it?????
      It seems to me to be one alternative to tossing the cookie.

  8. Denise what a great blog ! Because of you I never correct my dogs errors or missed cues ( they are probably mine anyway! I just toss a cookie have a play and do give the cue again or do something else always end up with a happy dog who wants to be with me! Thanks again.

  9. Pingback: Dog Behaviour Class 3 – Bonnies Dog Blog NI

  10. What brilliant insight! This will help me be so much more fair and reasonable in my training expectations.

  11. Barbara Sperling

    “And all the while, give some thought to how you can modify your overall training plan so that he’s a whole lot more excited about training, regardless of the specifics of the day, so that he begins to opt in all or most of the time, rather than opting out.”

    This sentence speaks to me.
    For my JRT Benen, it’s about fun/games. He will opt in all day long if fun follows requests for behavior. The behaviors just become part of the game.


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