Burrhus Frederic Skinner, known as the Father of Operant Conditioning heavily studied the ideas of operant conditioning in the 1930s. There are two forms of conditioning, Operant, and Classical; both of these are highly valued and studied in the world of training. Most often though, operant conditioning is the main go-to which is what we’ll be diving into.
Here is a quick definition of what operant conditioning is, and how it works. Essentially it is a learning system which focuses on four quadrants of reinforcement and punishment. Through the use of these quadrants, the results should show either an increase or a decrease in the desired or undesired behavior.
Examples would be:
Positive Reinforcement- Ask your dolphin to do a vertical jump, dolphin completes behavior to criteria, the trainer gives them a fish.
Positive Punishment- Dog is wearing a prong collar, E-collar, choke collar, martingale collar, etc, the dog receives undesired pressure when they do not comply when asked.
Negative Reinforcement- Pushing a dog’s bottom down to sit, and when the dog sits, the pressure is released.
Negative Punishment- A sea lion is not complying in their session, the trainer chooses to step away for a few minutes.
If you are from the marine mammal community, you are likely a positive reinforcement only trainer. If you are from the dog training community, you may be from any quadrant, or what is known as a balanced trainer. But here’s the thing- no matter what kind of trainer you identify as, I can almost guarantee that you are working within one of the other quadrants in some way, even if it is not deliberate. Ending your session, turning your back, using a smaller fish- these can all be punishments depending on your animal’s response. So often people look at prong collars, choke collars, E-collars, and see them as unethical or abusive but if you really want to dig into it, your back harness, gentle leader, flexi lead, or even in some cases flat collars are all the same. Please know, by no means am I bashing any of these kinds, I only mean to say look into the quadrants and look into what you’re actually practicing.
I personally believe that in order to be the best trainer I can be, I will have practiced thoroughly in each quadrant. Ultimately, your animal whether it be a dolphin, horse, dog, or elephant- they should all be motivated and excited to train. I’ve seen some dogs that are amped up to train that are wearing three types of collars, but are just as amped when all of the collars are off. I will say, that in the marine mammal community it is solely positive reinforcement because of public opinions and while I know that that is a whole other topic, I would encourage you to explore what you can do within the sessions that are still ethical and have you experimenting in the quadrants. Pushing yourself to be the best trainer you can be will be entirely up to you, but I caution you to research and practice the quadrants in your own life. Daily I go through the motions, looking at people with their pets, or even their own kids thinking to myself what at that moment are they practicing.
As trainers, I hope that ultimately we all only want our animals to be mentally stable and motivated. This is an attainable state for any animal, so long as you’re using the right tools and methods per your animal and session. Recently I heard a great quote from trainer Chad Mackin, “Ethically we are obligated to know all of our options before training.” I agree with that entirely.
Happy Training ♣