I am always amused when folks argue against operant conditioning. "Operant conditioning" isn't a method. It's the way learning works. You're using it whether you intend to or not. Whether you acknowledge it or not. That's like saying, gravity isn't the only way to stay on the ground

Below are definitions from a site dedicated to Operant Conditioning.

http://r-plusdogtraining.info/lexicon.htm

Reinforcement = anything that strengthens a behavior
Punishment = anything that suppresses a behavior
Positive = something added to influence a behavior
Negative = something taken away to influence a behavior

These are comprehensive DESCRIPTIONS that do indeed encompass the phenomenon of learning so it is possible to DESCRIBE Natural Dog Training through these terms of behavioral science. However they are superficial and ultimately meaningless because descriptions are not definitions. These “definitions” don’t say anything about the process of learning within the dog’s mind. Now a behavioral scientist would immediately complain that they are strictly studying the external behavior of an animal and have no need to consider what’s going on “under the hood.” But then when pressed about comparative behavior between species and between the same individual from one context to another, they always resort to the latest finding on neuro-anatomy and neuro-chemistry as a way of dealing with the question of comparative behavior and variability across the spectrum of behavior, thereby revealing the internal contradiction at the heart of learning theory that it needs to turn away from observed behavior in order to justify itself. They always reference some material function “under the hood” that’s inside the brain or genetically encoded. NDT only studies the observed behavior and never reads a thought/intention/reason into the behavior of the animal or ascribes to its genes some mysterious “intention” to replicate itself.

In order to entertain the distinction between describing and explaining, consider the following “definitions.”

Fuel = anything that adds speed to a car
Brakes = anything that reduces the speed of a car
Positive = something added to influence the behavior of a car
Negative = something taken away to influence the behavior of a car

These descriptions masquerading as definitions are right some of the time, however once we know what’s going on inside the car we can immediately see how they are sorely deficient as well. For example, when the key is turned and the car starts, saying that the car ASSOCIATES starting up with the turning of a key isn’t really saying much. It merely describes that a car starts when the key is turned. Such a description does have some value because a driver now knows they need to turn the key to start the car, however if one day the car doesn’t start when the key is turned, one finds themselves forced to look under the hood because the question remains, why does the car start when the key is turned? Why does one dog WORK for a food reward and yet another one doesn’t? Why does a dog work for food in one context, but then doesn’t in another? Are there such things as “high value” rewards according to some human rationale or rather is there a consistent LAW OF NATURE that can take us under the hood and reveal the consistency that’s going on within all dogs, within all animals, and that simultaneously generates variability from individual to individual, from context to context, and from species to species?

Published March 11, 2010 by Kevin Behan
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