Applying Operant Conditioning to People

This article first appeared in CHRONICLE OF THE DOG, the magazine of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers USA and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author Karin Larsen Bridge, president of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers Australia and part owner and instructor at Get S.M.A.R.T (Successful Motivation And Reward Training) Dogs in Sydney - a dog training school specializing in positive training classes for pet dogs. She is a Delta Accredited Canine Good Citizen (TM) Instructor and writes and lectures frequently on dogs and dog related issues such as positive training methods, behavioural problems and responsible pet ownership.


Recently I was asked to give a talk on effective ways of teaching people. I wanted to get away from the usual, albeit legitimate suggestions such as listening well, making eye contact, smiling, being approachable - to something a little more scientific. I remembered the Trainers Observation Form designed by Mary Burch & Jon Bailey in their excellent book 'How Dogs Learn '. This check list assessed how effectively a trainer applied operant training techniques to a dog in training. As the principles of positive training apply equally to any species, I adapted this Observation Form to check how effectively a trainer might apply the same operant principles to human students.The results were both interesting and surprising.


A. Selection of Goal/Task to be trained

I. Identified appropriate goal for student? (physical condition, prerequisite skills)

What is the specific task you are hoping to teach your students? An enhanced relationship between dog and owner? Making sure people own a relatively safe and trouble free pet? Or initially at least, simply making sure people come to class ensuring they have a chance to learn more specific behaviours later? For the purposes of this exercise let us say that the goal you wish to train is coming to class.

The first thing we are asked to consider is whether this is an appropriate goal within the current physical and cognitive abilities of the person we wish to teach. Like dogs, some students will have various physical problems some obvious some not so obvious. Examples might be bad backs, joints, hearing problems, learning difficulties or allergies all of which might impact on their ability to learn training skills. What if a student arrives tired and stressed - will this effect your lesson plan and goal expectations? (I bet it would if noticed obvious signs of stress in their dog!)

Are there any prerequisite skills for the goals you are going to teach? Are handouts a major part of the course requiring prerequisite reading skills? If you are running a clicker class does the co-ordination of leads, clicks and treats need to be taught as a pre-requisite to working with their dogs? II. Tasks trained in small enough steps. Are owners set up for success by breaking down behaviours into easily achievable increments? For example if our goal is class attendance your criteria for reinforcement might begin simply with turning up. As the course progresses you might raise the criteria to include punctuality, participation in class, or finally demonstration of a particular skill.

Logical sequence

In our scenario it makes sense to reinforce attendance before performance for the same reasons as it would for dogs to build confidence and motivation in the learning environment before raising criteria.

In the big picture, logical sequencing is essential if you want to develop a successful course curriculum. You need to consider the placement and progression of the exercises you are going to teach:

o Within the course (e.g. do you need to teach a sit stay before come why or why not?)

o Within the lesson plan - which exercises should start/finish the lesson plan? Is better to start with an active exercise such as games or a passive one such as settle? Why?

o Within an exercise (e.g. you would probably want to teach a lured sit before a lured down)

Trainer organized (materials present, set up)

o Do you take a lesson plan to class?

o Would physical markers (cones, chalk, and tape) help with class structure?

o What other materials might be useful e.g. chairs, music, microphone, tea & coffee facilities, sweets, reward stickers, name tags etc.?

B. Appropriate length of training session

Specific tasks change often enough

o Is there enough variety in your course curriculum to keep people interested?

o How long should you spend on various behaviours?

o Should there be a question & answer time?

o Should there be a time for socializing for dogs and/or humans?

End on positive note quit while still having fun?

o Do you leave your clients wanting more? If you've achieved a good result would you end the class early?

o Do you finish with a teaser of what is to come next week?

C. Training is fun, stimulating for student

What can we do to make training fun and stimulating for our students? If we can answer this question it should go a long way to achieving our training goal of class attendance.


A. Delivery of Reinforcers

  1. Appropriate reinforcer selected dog (in our case human )likes it

This is perhaps the most interesting point of this exercise and in my opinion may go a long way in explaining class drop out rates. What reinforcement are we going to use to increase the behavior of coming to class? What motivates people to come to dog training classes and stay in class?

Undoubtedly a good curriculum, relevant to owners needs and designed to achieve success through well thought out shaping techniques would have a reinforcing effect on class attendance. Indeed if you asked owners what motivates them to come to class they would probably give you a results orientated answer such as my dogs improved behavior. However we know that while a positive change in their dogs behavior may be reinforcing it is not in itself a very effective reinforcer for a variety of reasons:

i. difficult to deliver immediately

ii. difficult to objectively measure

iii.impossible to guarantee.

iv. subject to owner compliance

Therefore as well as designing classes with small, easy-to-achieve reinforcing steps toward training goals we also need to find more immediate reinforcers. Just as with dogs, different people will be successfully motivated by different reinforcers and what may be a positive reinforcement for one may actually have a reverse effect on another. Some possible positive reinforcements might be: o Praise easy to deliver quickly and well accepted by most. Should be used generously and sincerely.

o Socialization. Introducing people with the same breed, working in pairs or teams, playing non-competitive games or adding in a

coffee break time may improve class socialization and commitment to class attendance. (Good for pack drive people J)

o Fun interactions with dog

Baby agility, games & trick training can be included even in the earliest stages of learning and help develop a team attitude

between the dog and handler

o Food rewards -You'd be surprised how well accepted a variety of food treats can be for people too!

o Secondary Reinforcerssuch as certificates, special leads, ribbons and titles often very popular and relatively inexpensive. (Good for prey drive people!J)

o A wide variety of reinforcers will not only appeal to a wider variety of students but the surprise factor will enhance the motivating


2. Timing of reinforcement

o Reinforcer delivered immediately

o Not too soon

o Not too late

Here we see perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to successful application of operant principles in dog training classes. It is virtually impossible to consistently reinforce desired behavior within one second of its occurrence by each student in a class.

The greater the teacher/student ratio the greater is the difficulty in providing immediate feedback to individual students. This lack of immediacy would affect not only the rate of learning but the level of motivation. Perhaps this fact alone, explains why private one-on-one lessons tend to be far more effective (all other things being equal) than group classes because the instructor is able to watch and immediately reinforce desired responses.

3. Consistency

o reinforcing desired new behavior consistently

o inappropriate behavior not reinforced

Again, it is difficult to give consistent reinforcement to all the students in a class. Further, it may also be difficult not to unintentionally reinforce some inappropriate behavior with attention such as spending a greater portion of your time with a demanding, attention-seeking student.

4. Schedule of reinforcement

  • Applies appropriate schedule

  • Fades reinforcers from continuous to variable when dog learns skill

Do you apply a heavy rate of reinforcement to students in your beginner classes? Operant principles tell us that a continuous rate of reinforcement will be the most effective way to acquire new behaviours. You are probably always telling your students to be generous to their dogs how generous are you to your students?

Once your students have reliably achieved our goal (attending class) on a regular basis, you can move to a variable schedule of reinforcement. Raise your criteria and apply differential reinforcement (dependent on the quality of work) praise for attending class, a chocolate for good loose leash walking and a jackpot (tug toy) for the fastest recall on graduation night.

  1. Appropriate size of reinforcer?

No one can afford to give away toys and chocolates for every good response from every student. People are probably more expensive then dogs in this respect. You would soon be out of business if you tried to train your students to come to class by offering trips away or major prizes! If you start with high value reinforcers for coming to class, what will you offer for a good performance? While it is a good idea to keep in mind extras for excellence generous reinforcement with lower value rewards such as praise, friendliness, social time and the occasional chocolate, is probably the way to attain our goal of class attendance.

  1. Attention

It is impossible for one instructor to give their full attention to all students in a class at once. Again, the lower the student/teacher ratio the greater is the chance of success. In any case, however it is important for instructors to have and apply good listening and observation skills to their human students as well as to their dogs.


1) Trainer has a positive, upbeat demeanor

2) Would you like this person to teach you how to do something?

Walk your talk by applying positive reinforcement not only to your dogs or the dogs in your classes but to their owners. You will only achieve real creditability if positive reinforcement is evident in your entire approach to people and teaching. In conclusion

This Observation Form made me look at training people from a different angle. When I realized the delay in reinforcement when teaching a classroom of students I could understand better why operant principles seemed to work more quickly on the dogs (who would receive one on one attention by their owners) than on the people.

For our goal of training people to come to class, it became apparent that classically conditioning a positive emotional response to the dog training class environment was imperative. When designing classes, plan to reinforce your students generously right from day one - with praise, social interaction, fun activities and small rewards such as chocolates and stickers - not only for good work but simply for turning up to class and participating. With this combination of operant and classical techniques, students should developed a positive association with the training environment motivating them to stay, play and learn some more!

1 How Dogs Learn by Mary R. Burch and Jon S. Bailey ISBN 0-87605-371-1 Published by Howell Book House