Feature image saying "Dog Training Foundation"

Operant Conditioning: A Comprehensive Guide for Dog Training

Introduction to Operant Conditioning

Dog training is both an art and a science, requiring careful consideration of behaviour patterns and the consequences that follow. One foundational concept in this realm is Operant Conditioning, a principle developed by B.F. Skinner. This method hinges on the idea that behaviours can be shaped by their consequences. For pet owners and trainers alike, understanding Operant Conditioning is key to effective and humane dog training.

Learnt Behaviour by Consequence

Operant Conditioning operates on the premise that behaviours followed by rewards are likely to be repeated, while those followed by unpleasant outcomes are less likely to recur. This framework is instrumental in teaching dogs what is expected of them. By rewarding desired behaviours and not rewarding undesired ones, we can guide our canine companions towards better habits.

Professional dog trainers are well-versed in Operant Conditioning concepts; thus, when engaging a training service, it’s beneficial to discuss these principles. For a deeper dive into the dog training landscape in Singapore, you can refer to our article on Dog Training in Singapore here!

The 4 Quadrants of Operant Conditioning

  1. Positive Reinforcement: Adding a pleasant stimulus to encourage a behaviour.
  2. Negative Reinforcement: Removing an unpleasant stimulus to increase a behavior.
  3. Positive Punishment: Adding an unpleasant stimulus to decrease a behavior.
  4. Negative Punishment: Removing a pleasant stimulus to reduce a behaviour.

Understanding classical and operant conditioning is crucial for comprehending canine behavior. Classical Conditioning, pioneered by Ivan Pavlov, creates associations between stimuli to elicit responses. Integrating both techniques allows trainers to address behavioural challenges more effectively and compassionately.

Integrations with Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning, introduced by Ivan Pavlov, involves creating associations between a neutral stimulus and a significant one. In the context of dog training, Operant and Classical Conditioning often work together, influencing behaviour in various ways.

The subsequent examples, will take into account classical conditioning processes, when applying operant conditioning techniques. This gives us a full picture of the potential outcomes of the training session, allowing for us to apply behaviour modification or training techniques with full knowledge.

Positive Reinforcement


  • Scenario: Teaching your dog to sit with a clicker.
  • Action: Your dog sits on command.
  • Operant Consequence: You click the clicker and give a treat.
  • Classical Association: The clicker sound itself is not a positive stimulus, but it has become a conditioned positive reinforcer through the classical conditioning process by being associated with receiving a treat.
  • Outcome: The clicker itself becomes a positive reinforcer, enhancing the training process.

Using positive stimuli in training, especially with classical conditioning, offers minimal side effects. Positive reinforcement rewards desirable behaviors, strengthening the bond and fostering a trusting, enthusiastic learning environment. This flexibility allows trainers to tailor techniques to each dog’s needs, enhancing training effectiveness and enjoyment.

Negative Reinforcement


  • Scenario: Teaching your dog to walk on a loose lead.
  • Action: Your dog pulls on the lead.
  • Operant Response: You apply gentle pressure on the harness.
  • Classical Association: The dog associates the pressure with discomfort, even though the pressure is not actually uncomfortable. The discomfort only occurs when the dog pulls hard, but through classical conditioning, the dog now anticipates the application of a negative reinforcer (the discomfort of leash tightening).
  • Outcome: The dog learns to avoid the discomfort by walking calmly.

When using negative reinforcement, it is important to recognize that punishing the current behavior with a negative stimulus can be problematic. If not applied in a controlled manner, it can result in undesired behaviours, such as increased anxiety or aggression. Unlike positive reinforcement, the margin for error with negative reinforcement is much lower, making it essential to consult with a professional dog trainer before implementing these techniques.

Negative Example:

  • Scenario: Walking your dog in a neighborhood with other dogs around.
  • Action: Your dog sees another dog and you immediately pull on the lead.
  • Operant Response: You apply pressure on the harness each time another dog is near.
  • Classical Association: The dog begins to associate the presence of other dogs with the discomfort caused by the lead tightening. Even if the pressure is gentle, your dog perceives it as a negative stimulus directly linked to the presence of other dogs.
  • Outcome: This association causes the dog to become reactive towards other dogs. Instead of learning to remain calm, your dog becomes anxious or aggressive at the sight of other dogs, expecting discomfort each time. This misstep in training can exacerbate behavioral issues, making walks stressful for both you and your dog.

Understanding these nuances in training is crucial to avoid inadvertently creating negative associations that can lead to problematic behavior. Instead, focus on reinforcing positive experiences when other dogs are around to foster a calm and friendly attitude in your canine companion.

Positive Punishment


  • Scenario: Addressing your dog’s habit of jumping on guests.
  • Action: Your dog jumps.
  • Operant Consequence: You make a loud noise.
  • Classical Association: The dog associates jumping with the loud noise.
  • Outcome: The negative association discourages the dog from jumping.

The subsequent example will share a potential negative outcome when using positive punishment. We are currently in the midst of preparing an article that specifies the negative side effects of punishment, so stay tuned!

Negative Example:

  • Scenario: Attempting to deter your dog from jumping on guests.
  • Action: Your dog jumps on a guest and you respond by sternly shouting or making a loud noise.
  • Operant Response: Each time your dog jumps, you produce the loud noise.
  • Classical Association: The dog begins to associate the presence of guests with the sudden and unpleasant loud noise.
  • Outcome: This association causes the dog to develop reactivity towards guests. Instead of learning to refrain from jumping, your dog starts to bark and growl whenever guests arrive, expecting the discomfort caused by the loud noise. This exacerbates the problem, creating a more challenging and stressful situation for both you and your dog. Guests may feel unwelcome, and the dog’s anxiety increases, leading to worse behavior than the initial problem of jumping on guests.

It is important to recognise that while immediate actions may seem effective, they can have unintended long-term consequences. By understanding the potential pitfalls and focusing on positive reinforcement, you can promote healthier, more desirable behaviour in your dog.

Negative Punishment


  • Scenario: Discouraging barking for attention.
  • Action: Your dog barks.
  • Operant Response: You ignore the dog.
  • Classical Association: The dog associates barking with losing attention.
  • Outcome: The dog understands that silence is rewarded with attention.

Highlighting that punishment does not make the desired behavior clear is crucial for effective training. When punishment is used, dogs may not understand what is expected of them. Instead, they learn to associate certain actions with negative consequences, which can lead to an array of undesired behaviors. In the context of classical conditioning, this can be particularly problematic.

Negative Example:

  • Scenario: Ignoring barking to curb attention-seeking behaviour.
  • Action: Your dog barks for attention.
  • Operant Response: You consistently ignore the barking.
  • Classical Association: The dog begins to associate barking with a lack of response.
  • Outcome: If ignoring the barking frustrates the dog, it may escalate its efforts to gain your attention by engaging in other undesirable behaviours such as mouthing, jumping, or destructive activities. The increased negativity of your non-response can exacerbate the issue, leading the dog to persist in these unwanted behaviours. Without clear instructions or reinforcement of the desired behaviour, the dog remains confused and anxious, creating a cycle of frustration for both pet and owner. This highlights the importance of combining negative punishment with positive reinforcement, clearly communicating the behaviours you wish to encourage.


Behavioural training is intricate, shaped by the combined forces of Operant and Classical Conditioning. This interplay is ever-present in any training scenario and must be managed judiciously. Professional trainers are adept at recognising these dynamics and addressing them effectively.

Understanding these concepts is foundational to effective dog training, yet the nuances can be complex. The science behind these methods continues to evolve, often outpacing common practice. If you’re unsure about the best approach for your dog, we encourage you to consult with a professional trainer.

For personalised advice and expert guidance, check out our professional dog training services available at Pet Coach SG. We’re here to help you and your furry friend navigate the joys and challenges of pet ownership with confidence.

By grasping these principles, you’ll be better equipped to foster a harmonious relationship with your dog, enhancing their well-being and strengthening your bond. Happy training!

Picture of Webster Cheong, BA, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA

Webster Cheong, BA, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA

Webster has trained various species in zoos, rehabilitated companion animals, and championed animal welfare standards. He represented Singapore in the Amphibian Taxon Advisory Group, focusing on amphibian care and conservation. Now, his main focus is in canine fitness and conditioning as well as essential canine skills.

Picture of Qiai Chong, MSc, CSAT, CSB-D, CPDT-KSA

Qiai Chong, MSc, CSAT, CSB-D, CPDT-KSA

With over a decade of study in the animal behaviour and welfare sciences, Qiai earned her Masters from the University of Edinburgh and has since devoted herself to the welfare and behaviour of pets. She has worked as an animal behaviourist since, and her expertise lies in addressing pet behavioural issues such as fears, phobias, anxiety and aggression.

Thank you!

We will contact you within one working day!