Good old Skinner and so on

Lily’s first horse watching

I use good old operant conditioning. Here you go, no secret about it: reinforcement, shaping, conditioned reinforcement and chaining.So if I want Lily to learn recall I wait till she comes to me (not called) and immediately praise her and say ‘good girl, Lily, come’ (‘good’ is my clicker word -I’m a fan of clicker training but Ardbeg didn’t like the sound of clicking and I swapped it for ‘good’ as a conditioned reinforcer). I give her a treat and a lot of fuss every time she comes. I do it at home, then outside, increasing distance and changing variables (time, place, distractions). Once the behaviour is reinforced, I skip the treats (just don’t do it with ANY regularity, the smart beasts learn quickly, so they’ll work out that ‘every third one is rewarded with a treat so it needs to be the only one done properly’). And despite the fact I would never want my dogs to feel any discomfort I can’t say I don’t use negative reinforcement at all. My ‘active ignoring’ is precisely that, frowning, sad face, disappointed ‘oh’ (for jumping or rolling in fox wee). As I only work with abused/stray/rescue dogs who find it hard to trust people my aims are generally different from someone who wants an obedient, well trained dog. I’m far too laid back to make a dog ‘obedient’ (though my dogs seem to be well behaved compared to most-but that’s a side effect of what we work on).


I use multiple intelligences theory and learning styles theories (adapting how dogs learn to their dominant ‘style’ -some rely on memory more, some on the owner cues, some use one sense more -well, they all use the sense of smell a lot, but some are more audio, some more visual learners while others are kinaesthetic). I follow all the research into canine behaviour I can lay my hands on and I always remember that they’re not people. Or wolves. Or monkeys or any other species…

she wouldn’t complain about a horse meat scandal…

I don’t tell people what to do with their dogs, I only work with ‘my’ dogs and they don’t have their own human yet. So, in the form of a disclaimer: all the opinions are mine and all that. With the dogs I adopt I rely  greatly on the bond we build. I have never been disappointed yet. Maybe because I am a bit like my dogs. As a child I loved my physics teacher. I was the best student and I remember the pleasure, almost sensual  when she said ‘perfect!’ (her clicker word?) and looked at me with pride. I also remember how hard I tried to impress her after she said ‘fine, thank you’ without looking at me. Her subtle negative reinforcement caused my heart to sink, again, the feeling was almost physical. My secondary school gave me the worst physics teacher ever (and, because of my choice, five hours of utterly pointless torture with him each week). I went on to study languages and only re-discovered my love for physics in my thirties…

Don’t underestimate the power of love. In dogs as well as in people.

Again, to make up for the wasted time, here’s some links to (some of many) good examples on how to teach ‘come’

Victoria Stilwell

Karen Pryor

Sophia Yin



8 thoughts on “Good old Skinner and so on

  1. I do think that dog training and child rearing overlap in many ways, particularly the way rewards and punishments come into play. A child doesn’t like to do schoolwork, but rewards like watching TV, eating a bowl of ice cream after dinner, etc. may push them into completing their work. Of course, there’s a fine line between rewards and bribes in developing good habits. We just hope that the child continues to do their work because they genuinely enjoy learning or that the dog continues to walk by our side because they are no longer afraid of the outdoors.

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    1. She follows the principles of operant conditioning which are thought to be the most effective, she seems to have a pleasant personality, I’m sure she’s a brilliant trainer. I struggle a bit with ‘gurus’ as I always worry they might influence people so much that it’ll prevent us from thinking for ourselves. I definitely recommend the method, it has been invariably proven to be effective (both in labs and in real life, it’s been widely used for well over 100 years). When something brings us reward (pleasure or a promise of pleasure) we do it. Human behaviour is even easier to manipulate this way-probably because we know a bit more about human psychology and can think about more ‘tricks’. And despite what some people think it does not make us ignore the stimuli if we don’t get reward. If it happens, it just means that the trainer didn’t understand the principles. So, for example, Lily default position is ‘sit’. I don’t ask her to do it but she always sits ‘just in case’. She learnt ‘sit’ in one day (i.e. treats and praise every time), then for a week ‘sit’ with randomly distributed treats (about 1 in 10 sits rewarded with a treat). Now, she’ll get a treat just for ‘sit’ maybe once in a month (surprise reward). You can also train without treats entirely. My favourite sheep dogs trainer has never used a treat in his life and I think he’s the greatest dog genius in the world (well, he’s not a celebrity nor the material for).


    2. Just realised that my wise and patient husband is absolutely right when he jokes I’m so complex even low-carb dieters could eat me without guilt…Yes, I like Victoria Stilwell, your Mum is right, her methods are good. My previous (complex) comment is more about the fact I worry when something is a media hype as it puts the pressure on ‘celebrities’ to be right every time. Which makes them unable to admit if they’ve made a mistake. Which makes any progress impossible.


  2. No, don’t worry I got that! But I appreciated your previous comment for the valuable info it contained- I passed it on to Mum, she was very interested to see how methods/fashions change as she used to train and show at Crufts when she was younger…she doesn’t really rate Crufts now for obvious reasons, so thank you for the detailed reply : )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember how animals were ‘trained’ some 20-30 years ago. My grandfather (who’s 97) was a horse breeder, he has always loved horses (all my family do) but his training methods were far from what I’d consider acceptable now 😦 I have a great respect for him, he just thought that was the only way 😦

      Liked by 1 person

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