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Glossary of Terms

Operant Conditioning - a type of learning in which a cue alerts the animal that his behavior will have a consequence.  It is through Operant conditioning that voluntary responses are learned (so this is the main kind of learning that goes on in dog school).  In Operant conditioning (called "Operant" because the subject "operates" on and is influenced by, the environment), the frequency or intensity of the behavior is controlled by its consequence.  (Examples: 1) Your hand on the doorknob cues the dog to an exuberant  display in which he alternates between galloping around the room, jumping on you and clawing the door.  You leash him (when you can catch him!) and take him for a walk.  The walk acts a positive reinforcer for the exuberant behavior, and your dog is now even more of a loon every time he anticipates a walk.  2) Every time your dog rests quietly on his bed you talk to him sweetly.  Sometimes you toss him a treat.  Your dog gradually spends more time in quiet contemplation and less time rocketing around.)

Note:  The following are the four types of consequences that we use to influence behavior using Operant conditioning.  In these terms, positive does not mean "nice", it means something has been added.  Similarly, negative does not mean "nasty", it refers to the removal, or subtraction of a stimulus.  

Positive Reinforcement - the presentation of something "good" which increases behavior.  (Examples:  Dog sits, owner attaches leash, takes dog for walk.  Dog returns to owner at the beach, owner presents dog with a delicious piece of chicken.)

Negative Reinforcement - the removal of something unpleasant. The removal increases behavior.  (Example: Owner says "Sit", tightens choke chain.  Dog lowers rear end, owner releases pressure on choke chain.   Note: Negative reinforcement tends to be hard on pets and people, so we use it rarely or not at all in DubDub's training.)

Positive Punishment - the presentation of something unpleasant which decreases behavior (Examples:  1) Dog barks, owners sprays dog with water.  2) Dog jumps up, visitor knees dog in chest.  Note:  Punishment can have unpleasant, unanticipated side effects, especially if the owner acts as the punisher.  In example 1) above, the dog may learn not to bark, or he may learn to avoid the owner when the owner carries a spray bottle.  In 2), the dog may avoid jumping up, or he may avoid, or even show fear of, visitors.  In general, we avoid positive punishment whenever possible.  Certainly, try to have the punishment (if one truly seems to be necessary) come from the environment not the owner.  Often, punishment proves unnecessary when we use good management (set the dog up to be right) and positive reinforcement of the dog's good choices.)

Negative Punishment - the removal of something pleasant which decreases a behavior (Examples:  1) Excited dog, anticipating walk, jumps on owner who is holding leash.  Owner says "Too bad", puts down leash and turns away from dog.  2) Dog "misses" and bites owners hand instead of tug-toy.  Owner ends game.  3) Dog jumps up, owner turns back on dog.)

Variable Ratio Reinforcement - A variable ratio of 4 would mean that on average the dog is reinforced for every 4th correct behavior.  Because the 4 is an average, that might mean that the dog is rewarded for his 2nd correct performance, then his 6th, then his 4th, then his 1st, then his 5th, and so on. 


Classical Conditioning - classical conditioning is about association, not consequences.  It involves involuntary responses, like reflexes or emotions.  Classical conditioning is also called "respondent" or Pavlovian conditioning.  (As you might guess, it was discovered by the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov.  He was experimenting with the salivary response in dogs.  His experiments were getting "screwed up", however, because the dogs were starting to salivate when the bell on the lab door rang, prior to their food being prepared, and before the experimental apparatus was in place.)  (Examples:  1) Dog is anxious when owner leaves.  Owner always picks up car keys before leaving--dog starts to show signs of anxiety when owner picks up keys.  2) Dog sees a small child, a category of human he is unfamiliar with.  He feels scared, and growls as the child approaches.  3) Every time a small child is around, owner "happy-talks" and presents dog with a stream of absolutely delicious treats.  Dog starts to feel happy when small children show up. Note: Working with an aggressive dog should only be attempted with professional guidance.)

Prompt  - a physical "hint" or encouragement to engage in a behavior. (Examples: 1) You lift a treat over your dog's head, and as his head goes up, his rear goes down--You have "prompted" a sit.  2) You reach back and push on your dog's rear.  He tucks his rear end (perhaps reluctantly)--You have "prompted" a sit.)

Lure - a type of prompt, usually a treat or toy, used to guide the animal into the desired position.

Fade - Gradually decrease.  (Example: To fade the prompt (in this case a hand motion) for the Down, every few repetitions end the hand motion with your hand 6 inches or so further from the ground.  You will gradually move from having the dog follow a hand touching the ground, to having the dog respond to a hand held above his head height.)


Clicker - A small plastic box with a metal tab that makes a "click" sound when depressed.  The dog is conditioned to respond to the clicker as a reinforcer (a secondary, or conditioned reinforcer), then the clicker can be used to "mark" desired behaviors,  and to "bridge" a time or distance gap when it might be awkward to get a primary reinforcer to the dog in a timely fashion.   

Primary Reinforcer - Any reinforcer which the dog likes innately, without having to learn to like it. (Examples: food, water when thirsty, chances to interact with other dogs (in a normally socialized dog).)

Secondary Reinforcer - A reinforcer that has been learned, usually by association with a primary reinforcer.  (Examples: 1) Leash is associated with walks--picking up leash can now be used as a reinforcer of the dog's sit. 2) Owner clicks clicker, then feeds treat.  After 20 or 30 repetitions, the clicker is "charged up", and can be used to "mark" desired behavior.) 

Event Marker - A conditioned stimulus used by the trainer to identify accurately for the dog which behavior the coming consequence is attached to.  (Examples: see clicker.  For deaf pets, the on-off of a flashlight beam can be used as a marker.  In marine mammal training a whistle is often used.)

Ethology - The study of naturally occurring animal behavior.  (Examples:  Information about intraspecies communication, social hierarchies, developmental periods, etc. are ethological concepts that inform dog-training.)