How to Train a Small Dog Operant Conditioning

Medium
1-6 Months
General

Introduction

Small dogs are among the favorite breed types for city-dwellers, as the petite pups fit comfortably in modestly sized apartments and townhomes. Seniors also enjoy toy breeds as they are loyal companions that are easy to handle on and off a leash. In short, people of all ages and backgrounds adore everything from Chihuahuas to Dachshunds and from Beagles to toy Poodles. 

And what's not to love? Small dog breeds offer love, companionship, loyalty, warm cuddles, and someone to walk, run, and play with. They do essentially everything large breeds do but in a compact little body. 

Some owners feel, however, that smaller breeds are more difficult to train. In general, it's larger breeds that often come to mind when someone asks you to rattle off some of the smartest dogs such as Border Collies, German Shepherds, Huskies, Poodles, and it goes on and on. And while it's true that some pedigrees are predisposed to be more susceptible to training, it's not true that small breeds aren't trainable or any less intelligent! 

Defining Tasks

Maybe your dog is aggressive towards other dogs, maybe they suffer separation anxiety and whine and bark incessantly while you're at work, and maybe it's not as serious as all that and you just wish they would stop trying to lick you at every opportunity they get. 

From puppy kisses to growling and lunging on a leash, there are so many training tactics and resources available that are meant to correct unwanted behavior and this can be overwhelming. Especially when they typically come with all kinds of inclusive terminology and scientific-sounding phrases, such as the words 'operant conditioning', which some psychologists call 'shaping'. 

Operant conditioning at a glance is simply a training process designed to teach what is desired and undesired behavior based on a dog's ability to understand and appreciate the consequences of their actions. This training can help any breed of dog, but can especially come in handy for smaller breeds that may be difficult to get a handle on.

Getting Started

This dog training tactic has two main pillars: reinforcement and punishment. And each main idea (reinforcement and punishment) is like a coin, two-sided, either positive or negative. 

Things you will need for this training method are: 

  • Clicker
  • Highly-Motivating Treats

The clicker will help mark positive behavior and desired actions while the treats will help reinforce it. While obviously beneficial for you, operant conditioning will also be beneficial for your dainty canine, as it serves to strengthen the communication between the two of you and also your relationship. 

The Basics Method

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Step
1
Identify the behavioral issue
Many dog owners report behaviors such as barking as the number one behavior they wished their small breed dog would stop, or at least do less of. This can be used as a example. Because barking is a dog's only means of communication, we can't expect them to not bark at all, but we can have realistic expectations for how we want and will expect them to behave.
Step
2
Introduce a clicker
Gain your dog's attention by giving them a treat. Once those big, shining eyes are on you, they're ready to absorb some information. The next treat you give should come only after you click the clicker. Do this repeatedly: Click, then treat, click, then treat.
Step
3
Test the clicker
Later in the day, while your pet least expects it, click the clicker. If they come running to you or look at you in anticipation, then they've properly learned that the sound equates to a delicious reward. If they don't respond this way, then repeat step two.
Step
4
Train often
The next time your dog barks at something you don't want them to, treat it as a training opportunity. It may help you to keep your clicker and a baggy of treats on you at all times. Although silly, this could mean the difference between successful, quick operant conditioning and stagnant growth for your dog.
Step
5
Repeat
Over the course of the following weeks or months, repeat this method of operant conditioning as consistently as possible. If you live with others, teach your roommates or family members how to apply this training method so your dog is more likely to be consistently receiving feedback.
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The Reinforcement Method

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Step
1
Be familiar with the basics
Whether your pet's issue is barking at people outside of a window, at those you encounter on walks or both, you want to condition their behavior to not bark at people. While simultaneously utilizing the steps we learned in the first method, begin applying the Negative and Positive Reinforcement tactics of operant conditioning.
Step
2
Train throughout the day
If you're home working in the office or watching television and your dog begins barking wildly at something they saw or heard, it may sound like the opposite of proactive training, but the best thing to do is ignore them. Once the barking stops, take advantage of the moment by initiating positive reinforcement.
Step
3
Give something they love
Wait for your dog to naturally cease barking, even if it takes a few minutes. Refrain from yelling at them to stop or intervening in any way. Once they stop, positively reinforce them by clicking and treating. You may also want to give them both verbal and nonverbal cues that you like what they're doing by petting them and saying 'Good dog!' in a light, excited tone.
Step
4
Take away something they love
For many dogs, what they tend to desire the most is your undivided attention. If they are partaking in behavior you don't want to be habit, the best thing to do is ignore them. When your dog is barking, don't ask them to stop, don't look at them, just continue doing whatever you are doing as if you can't hear.
Step
5
Be consistent
By switching back and forth from positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, your dog can gradually begin to understand that good behavior provides them with treats and positive attention while negative behavior prevents them from getting either.
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The Consequence Method

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Step
1
Review your method
The terms in operant conditioning can easily confuse beginners. The training method almost has its own language, with "negative" signifying the subtracting of an item or action. Negative punishment or consequence means to take away something that your dog doesn't enjoy, so in a way, it's actually reward, not punishment.
Step
2
Take away something they hate
For Negative Punishment that's seeking to correct excessive barking, you could try several noises that are irritating to dogs. Common sounds are coins in an aluminum can or a high-toned whistle. As soon as your dog starts barking, rattle the can or blow the whistle, and as soon as they stop barking, you also immediately stop the loud noise.
Step
3
Add reinforcement tactics
While practicing Negative Punishment with your pooch, don't forget to utilize Positive Reinforcement when appropriate as well. For instance, as soon your dog stops barking, don't only stop rattling your coin can, but also set the contraption down and give your pet positive attention and yummy treats.
Step
4
Understand your action's effects
The way 'Positive Punishment' is obtained is controversial, but more importantly, has been proven ineffective. Hitting, shoving, pushing, and even screaming at a dog will likely cause them to have more anxiety about the issue you're attempting to help them avoid. A better way to go about this step would actually be to take a second look at a previous step we discussed: Negative Reinforcement.
Step
5
Give something they hate
Instead of introducing hitting (Positive Punishment) to your pet, try subtracting attention (Negative Reinforcement) from the equation, instead. Here, the 'something they hate' could be being ignored or denied attention. This is not only more humane than what the Positive Punishment method calls for, but it is a lot more effective and you'll see results instead of failures.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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