Marker Training is based on the principles of Operant Conditioning. Operant Conditioning has been defined as both the science of explaining behavior and the powerful technology of changing it. The principles of Operant Conditioning describe how animals learn. When trainers use Operant Conditioning, they apply the principles to obtain the results they want. Operant Conditioning breaks learning into three parts:
The stimulus that elicits behavior,
The actual behavior the animal does,
The consequence that occurs as a result of the behavior.
According to this theoretical framework, the consequence of a behavior determines whether it will be repeated or not in the future. If the consequence strengthens a behavior—causes it to occur more frequently—we say the behavior has been reinforced. Marker Trainers use positive reinforcement to teach new skills. On the other hand, behavior that leads to unpleasant consequences occurs less frequently. Punishment (as defined below) suppresses unwanted behaviors.
In either case, the consequence results from something being either added (+) or taken away (-) from the environment. This leads us to the definitions of four key Operant Conditioning terms.
Positive reinforcement (R+) means adding something the animal will work for to strengthen (increase the frequency of) a behavior. For example, giving the dog a treat for sitting will increase the probability the dog will sit again.
Positive punishment (P+) means adding something the animal will work to avoid to suppress (lessen the frequency of) a behavior. Jerking on the lead to stop a dog from jumping on people is an example of P+ used to suppress the behavior of jumping. Other common examples of P+ include a using startling noise, “bonking”, nose taps, vibration or electric stimulus & etc.
Negative reinforcement (R-) means removing something the animal will work to avoid in order to strengthen (increase the frequency of) a behavior. An ear pinch, traditionally used to train the forced retrieve, is a classic example of R-. The trainer pinches the ear until the dog opens its mouth, whereupon the trainer inserts the dumbbell. To reinforce taking the dumbbell, the trainer then releases (removes) the ear pinch. R- requires that an aversive first be applied or threatened in order for it to be removed.
Negative punishment (P-) means taking away something the animal will work for to suppress (lessen the frequency of) a behavior. For example, a dog jumps on you to get attention. By turning your back or leaving the room you apply P- by removing the attention he wants.
People commonly refer to the four principles of reinforcement and punishment as the “Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning.” That phrase is misleading in two ways.
First, it implies that all four principles are equally weighted or of equal use in a training program. In reality, Positive Punishment should only be used with appropriate constraint. In addition, because an aversive must be applied or threatened before negative reinforcement can occur, Negative Reinforcement must also be used judiciously.
Second, the quadrant description doesn’t include a questionable fifth principle of operant conditioning, one that “Positive Only Trainers” make particular use of. This is the Principle of Extinction. With Extinction, a behavior is weakened through the absence of any kind of reinforcement. For example, if no one answers your knock at a door, you will eventually stop knocking. If a dog can't reach a dog biscuit on the other side of a fence, it will eventually stop trying. Because Extinction is perceived as so benign, “Positive Only Trainers” use it almost exclusively. As they disavow any kind of punishment, “Positive Only Trainers” exclusively use Extinction Principal to attempt reduce most unwanted behaviors. The most important thing to note is that a completely reliable training program CANNOT be composed entirely of “Positive Only Training”.
A more accurate depiction of the relationship between the principles of operant conditioning and Marker Training begins with the image of a pie. In Marker Training, Positive Reinforcement is the largest piece, taking up perhaps one-half of the pie. The second largest is Negative Punishment. Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement are just two smaller slices. Most professionals would not include Extinction Principal at all. If they did it would be the very thinnest sliver because the Extinction Method is only effective and reliable with very small percentage of dogs. Many Marker Trainers do not include “Extinction” as a 5th principal of Operant Conditioning or it as an addition to the accepted classic “Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning.”
Is it important to know these definitions? Yes, for two reasons.
First, it helps us understand each other much better. In everyday usage, the words “Positive” and “Negative” often mean “good” and “bad”. However, in Operant Conditioning (Marker Training), they refer to something added or something taken away. “Punishment” is another word that carries strong connotations in everyday language, but in the context of operant conditioning, punishment means only that which suppresses the occurrence of a behavior.
Second, to Marker Train without understanding the science makes Marker Training nothing more than a cookbook full of recipes that may or may not work for your dog. Why? Because if you don’t understand the underlying behavioral principles, you can’t examine a training situation, determine why it is—or, more importantly, isn’t—working, and adjust for your particular dog.
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