I watch a dog named Toy every week for about 18 months. About the third month into the sitting, she started to recognize when I was going to take her home. She would see me pack her things, give her extra attention and lots of petting with positive words and finally then her leash would be put on and we leave the apartment. With each of these actions, it started to trigger her to stand, put her paws in a prayer position and lift them up and down until the act was initiated. First with the leash and now she does it when I start to pack her things.
Operant conditioning has taken place. So, what is Operant Conditioning? Think of the "positive" consequences of action and this term will start to make sense. Toy learned my routine and without knowing it, I taught her these actions to get through the routine to help with her understanding of what I was doing but to entertain myself. Dogs can learn through actions resulting in rewards or punishments. Either way, there is a behavior that has a consequence. This is a trained or learned behavior where an operation or series of operations will yield either wanted or unwanted results. The Operant Conditioning is a reward. Behaviors that are rewarded will most likely be strengthened and repeated. In short, Toy was taught prayer hands and standing is good and will result in going home.
Unknowingly, I taught her through positive reinforcement that each stage would be produced if she moves her paws back and forth as I always encourage the fun response and laughed about it with her present. The was entirely backward chainings of sequence, as she first started to do this action when the leash present. As the months went on, I unknowingly wanted to do this "cute" behavior more frequently and would positively reward her every time she did the action. It started with leash association, and then move back to when I began to give her extra attention, then to when she saw me begin to pack and finally ending when I ask her if she wanted to go home.
As far as Operant Conditioning goes, practice makes perfect, so be sure to be rigorous and consistent with your routine to expect the best possible results. Also, remember to be patient. It may take a while for your dog to get the hang of things. Through the sequence of events, it is important to understand the reaction to your action as sometimes you may unknowingly reward a bad behavior but also understand what is working with your pet, like praise, petting or a treat. If you inadvertently create a bad behavior through this practice, so know that you may have to restart again. It's not a failure on your part or your dog. It is a teaching, bonding, and communicative experience.
Now that you understand the fundamentals of Operant Conditioning, look for areas in your life where you would like to see improvement in your dog's behavior and apply what you've learned to your everyday life.
What are so of your experiences with Operant Conditioning?