The Development of Operant Conditioning

The current state of dog training in the United States has been an evolutionary process.  To examine the current state it is helpful to look back and examine the individual concepts and those that developed the concepts.  Understanding the Scientists and trainers from history can provide a better understanding of where various methods began and how they have evolved over time.  This gives us a more complete picture of why we do dog training the way we do and how we can maximize our dogs potential.

Ivan Pavlov

No discussion of training history is complete without including Ivan Pavlov.  Pavlov determined, in the early 1900′s, that a reflex reaction in an organism can be conditioned to respond to an external stimulus.  His focus was on digestive tract research but he was able to make great strides into the science of cognition and the functioning of the cerebral cortex.

Edward Thorndike

As Pavlov was working in Russia, Edward Thorndike was experimenting in the USA.  His work set the stage for our current understanding of Operant Conditioning.  Thorndike’s Law says that responses that produce rewards tend to increase in frequency.  This thinking has set the stage for the current treat training that is prevalent today.

J.B. Watson

J.B. Watson, known as the father of modern behaviorism was a psychologist who worked at Johns Hopkins University.  He is known for his ” Behaviorist’s Manifesto” where he is a proponent of detached observation and unsympathetic manipulation of the subject.  His work helps dog trainers understand and deal with fearful dogs.

B.F. Skinner

B. F. Skinner is generally thought to be the first to publicize the theories of Thorndike and make operant conditioning a formalized science.  He brought operant conditioning to the forefront of psychology and moved this science out of the lab and to the general public. He also described the first use of the clicker for training in his How to Teach Animals(1951). Skinner can also be credited with the learning process now prevalent in dog training. This is a fivefold process.

  1. Give the learner immediate feedback.
  2. Break down the task into small steps.
  3. Repeat the directions as many times as possible.
  4. Work from the most simple to the most complex tasks.
  5. Give positive reinforcement

He also developed the reinforcement schedules that are practiced by much of the dog training world.  These are continuous reinforcement, Variable reinforcement and Ratio reinforcement.

Keller and Marian Breland, Bob Bailey

The Brelands brought dog training out of the dark ages and into the public spotlight. Marian, as a research assistant for B.F. Skinner, learned the principles of operant conditioning and applied them to commercial animal shows. With her husband Keller they started Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE) and set up thousands of animal shows in malls, fairs and arcades throughout the United States. They started training animals for commercials and began to work with dolphins at Marine Studios. Eventually they were involved in training with various animals for the military. The most famous of these projects was the development of pigeon guided missiles. When Keller passed in 1965 Bob Bailey became the General Manager for ABE and Marian and Bob were married in 1976. In the 1980′s Marian became involved with Karen Pryor and her clicker training protocol and consulted as an expert on her Clicker Training Forum.