How Animals Learn...

To train our dogs effectively, it is important that we first understand the science behind learning. The science that follows in this section is a brief summary of learning theory. By understanding how it is that all living beings learn, from worms to elephants and even humans, we can then establish the most effective methods of teaching and training.

Over a century of scientific research has allowed us to peel back the many layers of behavior and find the core of why we behave in certain ways and not in others. All living things perform behaviors that result in what they need or want, because we are programmed to survive and strive. We stop behaving in ways that are unrewarding or do not provide us with what we want or need, because wasting our energy will not help us to survive.

The basic law of behavior is this:

Behaviors that are reinforced will increase, while behaviors that are not reinforced will fade and become extinct.

This means, that in order to stop a behavior, we have to take away the reason why it is happening, and to increase a behavior or teach a new behavior, we must provide a reason to behave that way again.

Around the beginning of the 20th Century a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov, discovered that he could make dogs salivate (drool) at the sound of a bell. He trained the dogs to do this by pairing the sound of the bell with food; every time he rang the bell he gave the dogs food. A simple process called classical conditioning. The dogs soon came to realize that the bell meant that they would be receiving food, and they began to produce saliva in anticipation. This was the first step to understanding how we can change and affect the behavior of other through associative learning.

Around 1938, a psychologist named B.F. Skinner developed a more detailed process for changing behavior, known today as operant conditioning. Operant conditioning basically says, that an organism changes its behavior based on the effect the behavior has on the environment. If the behavior leads to good things it will happen again, if the behavior leads to bad things it will cease. Skinner outlined 4 consequences that affect behavior, with two main categories: 

Reinforcement - is anything that increases the chances of a behavior happening again. 

Punishment - is anything that decreases the chances of a behavior happening again. 


Positive Reinforcement (+R) : is adding something good following a behavior, to increase the chances of that behavior happening again.

Examples: Food, Play, Freedom, Toys, Treats, Attention, and More!


Negative Punishment (-P) : is removing something good following an unwanted behavior, so that the behavior is less likely to happen again in the future. 

Examples: time-out, restrict freedom, remove toys, end play, remove attention.


Negative Reinforcement (-R) : is removing something painful, frightening, or unpleasant following a behavior, so that the relief of escaping the painful, frightening, or unpleasant stimulus increases the chances of that behavior happening again.

Example: When you get into a car and forget to buckle your seat belt, an alarm sounds. When you buckle the belt the annoying sound stops. The behavior of buckling your seatbelt has been reinforced by the disappearance of the annoying alarm.


Positive Punishment (+P) : is adding something painful, frightening or unpleasant after an unwanted behavior, so the behavior is less likely to happen again in the future. 

Examples: “NO!”, shouting, spraying water, shocking, corrections, leash jerks, pops, kicking, hitting, pushing, scolding, poking, jabbing, loud noises, yanking, pulling, etc.


Positive punishment and negative reinforcement are no longer necessary in modern training. These methods have been proven to create behavioral side effects, such as increasing aggressive responses in up to 43% of dogs (Herron et. al., 2009). Much of the training equipment we commonly hear about, such as punitive collars (prong, choke, shock, e-collars), do not send clear messages to the animal which confuses training, and often cause injuries. Secondly, the use of force, fear, or pain with animals limits learning as the hormones associated with stress interfere with the chemical processes of learning in the hippocampus, a portion of the brain related to long-term memory (Overall, 2013). To create the best chance of success while training we must eliminate stress and fear from the process. 

Today animals are trained using positive reinforcement, and only in extreme cases negative punishment. The techniques use throughout this course are based exclusively in science, and are the same methods used to train exotic animals in Zoos and Aquariums internationally, as well as domestic animals worldwide.

In order for behaviors to truly become extinct we must remove the reinforcement for the behavior. By removing the reason a behavior is occurring, the behavior becomes useless. This is much more effective than positive punishment, which acts only to temporarily suppress behaviors. Often dogs learn to perform unwanted behaviors when the "punisher" is not around. This means the behavior is never truly gone, therefore it can reemerge at any time if the dog has enough desire to engage in the behavior. Getting rid of the motivation for the behavior, gets rid of the behavior completely, resulting in an animal that behaves well without having to be nagged.

Sara Richter, CPDT-KA

Sara Richter, CPDT-KA Founder of Simply Animal Training LLC, began her professional training career in 2008 after 11 years as a student in the equestrian world. Sara began as an assistant horse trainer and horseback riding instructor for JGarvey Horsemanship. During the following 4 years she learned the ins and outs of positive reinforcement training, behaviorism, and operant conditioning. In 2013 Sara formed an equine training business known as Equestrianism. In 2014 Sara became a leader with the Local 4H where she taught children to use clicker training with numerous other animals including pigs, sheep, chickens, and even small animals. In 2014 Sara Joined forces with Root Dog Training LLC as a dog trainer, where she learned to translate her knowledge of learning theory and behaviorism, to the unique behaviors of canines. Sara is proud to continue offering Animal-friendly Force-Free services to pets and owners of all kinds. Sara is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed from the Certification Council For Professional Dog Trainers, and a Canine Life and Social Skills Evaluator with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Sara is constantly advancing her education in animal training and behavior through continuing education, certification, and college courses.