“What the hell is Operant Conditioning?”

His face was serious and unapologetic. And for a moment, I was taken aback.

I proceeded to explain in very simple terms the core of Operant Conditioning and how we use it every day in dog training. He listened patiently.

Photo Credt @ Tamandra Michaels www.heartdogphotography.com

This man is a dog trainer. But he isn’t JUST a dog trainer. He is one of the best. Not only has he been one of the most influential trainers in my career, he is also one of the very few people who I trust to read and build dogs well. He is an exceptional trainer…and he didn’t know the term “Operant Conditioning”.

As I finished my overview, he chuckled to himself. Then, he looked at me, slight grin still remaining from the entertainment value of my sermon, and he flatly said, “So… it’s just dog training? Why can’t you just train the damn dog?”

I laughed with his words… he had a point! And with my laughter, his grin erupted into a full blown smile as he took a sip of tea, moving on from the psychology discussion to talking about “things that matter”, like our training program, chicken husbandry, and the weather.

When I left that day, I rolled his words around my head. He used Operant Conditioning every day…and he used it well. In fact, he used it better than nearly anyone I had met. But in dog training circles, he’d be ripped to shreds for not knowing such a basic fundamental concept by name.

Did it really matter though? Did he need to know the fancy words and advanced theories if he trained dogs and trained them well? Did he really need to be able to spout off definitions of things like Operant Conditioning, Premack, or Primary and Secondary Reinforcer if he was inherently applying those principles better than most? And more importantly, does it speak to a trainer’s worth and credibility if they can regurgitate those theories in deep academic discussions? Or is what matters most the actual results we see with our K9s?

Why can’t we just train the damn dog?

Now, I am an academic. If you didn’t know already, in my former career, I was a biochemist. I absolutely love science. I’ll be honest – I am a complete and utter nerd who would love nothing more than to spend her summers lounging by a pool and reading the latest in neurobiology. Because I love science, math, and analytics, I am drawn to studies, research, and the academic side of dog training, probably more than most. However, even with my background, I still find myself getting frustrated with the inflated academic nature of popular dog training that seems to be dominating the scene, and here’s why: Plainly stated, it’s just not effective.

Here’s an example:

Recently, I took an advanced obedience course centered on training techniques I could put to use to improve precision in my routine. It was chock-full of information on psychology, theory and technique. But when all was said and done, and as I reflected on the course and its material, I realized that I had walked away without much that I could apply directly and immediately to my training. It was good information, don’t get me wrong, but I was left wondering if it was REALLY necessary. I mean, if we just used simple terms to communicate with one another, I could have saved myself a good hour or more that I now felt was wasted. Time that was spent learning how to “speak dog trainer”, time that could have been spent actually training my dog.

But an interesting phenomenon occurred as I sat through the 120 minute course of which I only took away about 20-25 minutes of useful and practically applicable information. While I wasn’t thrilled in the end, I did find myself lending credibility to the trainer as he continued on with training jargon and definitions. And as I watched very average dog training and very basic tactical moves, I still caught myself putting stock in his capabilities.

Now I’m not saying that trainers who use academic jargon are bad. Some of my favorite trainers use jargon….and a LOT of it! I am simply saying that it can be very easy to put faith in a trainer’s abilities by the amount of fancy jargon they use and not by the actual training they do. And that isn’t wise. Eloquent wording and great public speaking skills don’t equal good dog training. Anyone can talk about baking, but what does the pie taste like?

None of us have endless amounts of time to spend training our dogs. Now more than ever, we are busy. We rush here and there, to and from work, trying to balance our chores, our family lives, our careers, and our dogs. So if jargon makes my comprehension more efficient and effective, I’m all about it. But if I have to spend an extra hour that I don’t have learning jargon that doesn’t help me train my dog better just so I can feel legitimate in conversations with other trainers, I’m offended. My time is valuable.

In addition, I feel like academia is replacing good dog training, and in fact at times, it is misleading people into believing that the folks reciting it know what they are doing, even when they really aren’t that good.

And most importantly, I feel like academic jargon alienates many who aren’t as knowledgeable in the scientific side of dog training, and it leaves them feeling lost and overwhelmed. I’ve seen it all too many times. Sitting in a group class and watching the trainer use words that fly right over the heads of many of participants. Some of the group is thrilled – they know these terms and they instantly resonate, adding credibility to the trainer in front of them. While others are frustrated. They don’t understand, and training now seems like an overwhelming and daunting endeavor.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t the goal. But I do think it’s part of the fallout of the push to a more academic style of training.

If you’re using jargon in your training, I’d encourage you to really reflect and spend some time asking yourself these critical questions:

  1. Does my audience understand me? – Gearing your tone and language to your audience is critical in ensuring comprehension.
  2. Is the time I need to take explaining this term going to result in better comprehension and more effective training? Will my students be able to understand their dog better for knowing it?
  3. Do these terms add to my effectiveness, or am I using them to gain credibility? – This is important. As trainers, we need to use jargon only when it’s better for the dog and handler. Not when it’s better for us.

And if you’re taking a course with someone who uses jargon that you don’t understand, speak up! Ask questions and make sure you are getting the most out of your time spent. Don’t put faith in trainers just because of the language they use. And make sure you leave the class feeling empowered and not overwhelmed and defeated.

Photo credit @ Frank Wisneski www.blackdogsrule.com

Here’s the thing. Trainers who use academic jargon aren’t all bad. I know some absolutely incredible ones. But trainers who use academic jargon aren’t all good either. And at the end of the day, we need to work hard not be persuaded by fancy terminology and instead, evaluate the trainer on the results they achieve and the dogs at the end of their leashes.

A note to trainers: We need to be more cognizant of our audience. We need to make training more accessible to people of all levels of dog training, and we need to select and use jargon only when it is the most effective and efficient means to communicate something that will directly improve comprehension and tactical training.

And most importantly, we need to spend time training our dogs. Let’s get out of the classroom and put the theories to work. It’s the only way we will learn timing and application, and it’s the only way we will really become great trainers.

Like I said earlier, hands down my favorite trainer out there had no knowledge of academic theory. He didn’t care. Because at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. Knowing those terms didn’t help him become a better trainer, it didn’t improve his timing, and it didn’t help him get inside the dog’s head. Practice did. Years spent working dogs did. Getting out and working with trainers on the field did. When I worked with him, we never spent days sitting over coffee debating the latest academic study. We didn’t talk Operant Conditioning, Classical Conditioning, and the use of Aversives. We just trained the damn dogs. And for that, I remain eternally grateful.

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    25 replies to "Just Train the Damn Dog – Are academics actually improving your training?"

    • Viatecio

      Operant Conditioning is, in short, the science of feedback. Good trainers already know how to give feedback in whatever form is appropriate for the dog, the situation, the desire and the consequence; they also know when to hold back and let the dog suss things out when appropriate. They are also considering the feedback the dog is giving THEM in terms of what to apply, how much and when.

      All this delineation and specification about the academia involved (Premack, operant/classical conditioning, NRM, reinforcer/aversion types, etc) is just excess noise and EXACTLY like training a dog whose owner won’t stop talking: it’s all just excess noise. Take out the noise. The more the people say, the less the dog listens. When silence is paramount, suddenly the dog can hear what it’s learning and being asked to do. When the details and excess noise of academia and “science” are removed, what you have left is the clarity of training the dog–and hence, the RESULTS.

      By the by, the trainer to whom you refer at the beginning is someone that I would much rather spend with instead of the greatest PhD, DACVB or VTS out there.

      • Meagan Karnes

        YES! Very well said 🙂

        • Susi J.

          Agreed! How in the heck did I successfully train my dog without the special letters behind my name….I have no idea? After reading your article here, I finally feel a bit more justified at not being the absolute jargon aficionado. I have learned from and with the best of them (Dog Trainers) – and I have learned the timing, to smile and stand up to cheer them on to go even a bit further….isn’t that similar to Positive Training to the presenters? I think so. Just train the damn dog is such an appropriate title, and I loved reading each and every word. Thank you so much for writing this.

      • Sylvia Bishop

        I for one never fill peoples head with fancy words, Training is training , Teaching a dog to have an instant response to its name teach the sit’ down’ stand’, Who wants fancy jargon for that, I find folk that talk big & uses fancy phrases, do so because they are inadequate, Most that preach with fancy words very rely have been successful, And if they have. Its been one good dog & they live on that, As the saying go’s the proof is in the pudding, You can buy the best cook book in the world but if you cant read & understand what you are reading, when the time comes to put it in to practice. the pudding will be crap, At the end of the day, dog training is dog training & not about fancy words, ( ITS PLAIN OLD COMMON SENSE )

    • Shelley

      When working with clients, I have found that my most valuable tool is to talk to them in human terms. Basically putting them in the dog’s place or putting the situation into human terms. It has really helped them understand what I’m telling them and apply it. This is especially helpful when dealing with owners of reactive dogs. Let’s say for instance a dog that is fear reactive to other dogs. The owners see no reason for the dog to be afraid, so they shove the dog into the situation (or drag). I find out something they are truly afraid of; Let’s say a shark. I ask them, If I told you this shark is perfectly safe right now to swim around, would you do it? Of course the answer is no. If I punished you every time you said you were afraid, would you keep telling me? The answer; no. If you stopped telling me about your fear, would it mean that you were no longer afraid? “no”. Your dog is the same way. If I give you a cave to retreat to and approach and retreat from the shark as you feel safe to do, would you be a little more willing to step out of your comfort level and explore the possibilities? They say yes! My reply to that is; “Using this training technique is basically the same idea.

    • Carol Mortimer

      I always use simple human analygies when explaining things to my pet dog handlers, my favourite is the canine delinquency one when their one cute and compliant puppy turns into the 10 month monster at the end of the lead. As with human delinquents they are only reacting to their swinging hormones as they grow up. They will come out of it soon and end up the dog they hoped for just like humans do.
      To get back to dog training, I encourage my handlers to shut up and listen to the dog. When the dog realises that their handler has something that they want they will start to train the handler to give it to them. All the human has to do is to respond to the cue from the dog that they they want.
      In a dog that has learnt to learn a new behaviour can be offered to the handler by the handler waiting and withholding the motivator. The dog will try most of its usual cues, when these do not work it will try something else. All the handler has to do is mark and reward it.
      I totally agree with the Just Train The Damn Dog idea. How about sometimes letting The Dog Just Train The Damn Handler.

    • Pat Lawler

      The voice of reason at last. Thank dog!!!

    • Robert Vaughan

      Brilliant. Period.

    • Sylvia Mattson

      Love to learn new ways

    • Dog Diva

      Tell me, how anxious would any of you be to have an operation done by a surgeon who didn’t know the terms anterior and posterior? Science is not the enemy. The enemies are things such as worship of ignorance, misapplication of scientific principles, lack of mechanical skill, and unwillingness to improve.
      We will eventually kill the dog training profession if we do not govern ourselves the way other professions do, with standards of practice. Surgery is an art, too, but you cannot get abstract when removing someone’s appendix. You do have to be able to tell it from the dall bladder, or the liver.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Science is absolutely not the enemy. But IMO jargon should be used only when it is the most effective and most efficient means of communication. The knowledge to tell the appendix apart from the gall bladder is tactical and isn’t based on an understanding of jargon alone. I would much prefer a skilled surgeon who knows the difference between a gall bladder and appendix in practice, but may be fuzzy on the words associated with those things, to a surgeon whose only experience is from the pages of a book 🙂 Even better if the skilled surgeon, with excellent tactical experience has an understanding of advanced jargon, but speaks to those who aren’t as familiar in understandable and relatable terms. Best of both worlds right there!

        • Dog Diva

          I have found that, while I don’t use jargon a lot, my clients have been fully able to understand the lay terminology that explains the science. Thus, I may say associations or consequences, versus classical or operant conditioning, but I don’t dumb things down to the point where training seems divorced from any rational replicable protocol based in something other than “energy” or some other vague concept. I really think we have to be careful that we not appear to be science deniers, and that we hold trainers to a standard that demands they know how to train by using key concepts. I want trainers who know when to use OC or CC, and how to construct a training plan so they are manipulating antecedent stimuli or splitting criteria versus blaming a dog for “noncompliance.”
          Granted, there is an art to this just as there is with surgery, but a doc has to pass the medical board beforehand. We should have minimum standards, too.

          • Meagan Karnes

            Interesting points and interesting interpretation of the article. Thanks for your comments!

          • Sylvia Bishop

            Wow? why on earth would the average Jo blogs of the street be even slightly interested in the science, It dose not take a degree in science to teach a dog its name,

    • Anne

      As a dog owner, who has in recent years become fascinated with the science, I have to say, years ago, when I knew nothing, I would have hired any trainer who was able to talk a good game, science based or not. Now that I have had the benefit of learning from people who not only know the jargon, but are able to execute it and teach me to execute it, I am horrified by what I listened to in the past.
      Are there some trainers who don’t know the jargon, but use it naturally? Probably. But consider this. Many trainers who don’t bother to learn and execute the science are most likely the ones we dog owners shouldn’t be hiring.
      Remember, Cesar Millan can’t speak or execute.
      Bottom line? If you can’t speak it, can’t explain it, AND do it, there is a skill set missing that needs to be worked on. Animal training IS a science, whether someone wants to be bothered by learning it, or not.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Interesting perspective. Thanks!

      • Pat

        Cesar Millan has never claimed to be a dog trainer. So the point you’re making using him as an example is moot.

      • Carol

        Totally agree. And nothing frustrates me more than a dog trainer who gives me a blast of personal theories and made-up explanations, usually accompanied by stupid analogies, to explain what they’re doing. One famous trainer repeatedly told me, “It’s the dog’s job! It doesn’t matter if he likes it or not – you have to go to work everyday, and so this is his job just like you have your job.” She overlooked the fact that she herself made a huge career change to get out of unsatisfying work and into dog training, and that humans change jobs. Don’t get me started with this topic…but science, at the very least, gives us a common language. No more do I have to listen to someone assure me “We do it this way…because The Guru says, [insert snappy slogan].” Really? As one of my dog training instructors used to say, (irony intended), “You need to understand it, and then you can do it.” Yep – and knowing is based in reality, which is what science is all about determining.

    • Kaye Hargreaves

      I agree that spouting jargon will not get your dog trained. However “just doing it” is not good either. There are many trainers out there who “just do it” and in my opinion, they get it wrong. Spouting jargon at them will not give them better skills, but teaching them better techniques, based on an application of sound behaviour science principles will. At some point, trainers need to understand some underlying principles. Yes, you can pick up a certain amount by trial and error and seeing what works, but it is better to inform yourself about some basics, which have been established for decades. We have to put them into practice, translate them into specifics for our particular application. I see a lot of trainers whose toolkit consists of a whole lot of nifty techniques that they have picked up from all over the place. But it’s like a mosaic, very fragmented and with gaps. So they make mistakes, they apply a technique incorrectly, without realising that it is supposed to be step 5 in a coherent program… Then they say it doesn’t work. I was doing some troubleshooting for competition trainers. Some of them were having problems with the Directed Jump exercise. Firstly, they didn’t get the concept of breaking down a complex exercise into component behaviours, and working on the aspect they were having trouble with, and secondly, they didn’t understand the concept of backward chaining, so they were having the classic problem of the dog losing confidence going into unfamiliar territory. But all they wanted from me was a fish. Not interested in learning how to fish. Another example, they were doing tracking. Maybe using a cue such as “find”. Later they would start UD and have to teach the Seekback exercise. So they used the cue “find” and wondered why the dog was confused. When I said tracking forwards and seeking back are two different behaviours, so use two different cues, the response was “Oh, the dog can work it out.” Yes, I am constantly surprised by what our dogs can work out when we give them such unclear communication. But why not lift your game? Would you go into obedience saying “drop” for both down and stand and expect the dog to somehow figure out what you mean? Another example is not knowing the meaning of reinforcement. That it actually strengthens behaviour. It’s about waving a piece of steak around in the air, or a toy, and using it as a stimulus, so the dog looks at it and thinks, actually, no, I am more interested in rolling in dead leaves right now. It is about strengthening the behaviour of leaving something attractive to come back to the handler, based on the history of reinforcement and the application of the Premack Principle). I could give many examples. At some stage, you have to put some effort into understanding the principles. Otherwise you will just make mistakes.

    • Evelyn H

      In my experience academic knowledge does not correlate with skill. I’ve know people with psychology degrees who are really lousy dog trainers.
      A good dog trainer does not need to know all the ‘scientific terms’ for what s/he is doing. I would say that an empathy with dogs, and flexibility in their approach to training is more important than “knowledge’ of scientific theories and terms. I remember ears ago listening to a interview wit a Police Dog Handler Instructor. He said that he was sent ma recruits , bright young people and good policemen, who were simply not good with dogs. He said that being a good dog handler seems to be an innate quality
      However for us ‘also rans’ a knowledge of the science does help us asses just what we are doing. it also gives us the confidence to question what other people tell us.

    • Amelia

      This article is so good! I used to spend time reading all of these dog training books, but they really did not prove to be much help…instead, all of the “jargon” simply collided and I ended up more confused than ever. Finally, I found a good military dog trainer who simply showed me how to train my dog without confusing me with fancy words. Yes, he knew the fancy terms and explained them to me when I further inquired about methods, but do I, a pet owner, really need to know how to lecture other people…I just want to learn how to train the “damn” dog? I learned a heck of a lot more through trial and error than being lectured. Yes, trainers maybe should have some basic knowledge of the fancy terms so that they are not able to be put down by other jargon trainers nor seem like frauds, but results are what sells a trainer for me, not a bunch of marketing.

      Hey, I was wondering if you could possibly write a blog about what it takes to exercise and live with a Malinois. I am getting into Schutzhund and am trying to decide between a WL GSD, Dobie, or Mal. Like, how much exercise do they really require and in what form? Or maybe, what works best for you?

    • sheila joss

      Can I give you my favourite personal anti jargon story? Its long……
      Here is Skinner’s definition of punishment
      “• Punishers: Responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Punishment weakens behaviour.”
      Last winter was filthy here in the UK. My garden was a mud pit. Every time the dogs went out there, they came back in like creatures of the black lagoon. To add to this, one of my boys became increasingly attention seeking, coming in all muddy and wanting to be in my lap (he weighs 32 kg) and wanting fusses and cuddles which, with the mud, was not too much fun! He’s not normally a worrier or anxious so I looked at what had changed….was there something new in the garden, had anything changed? Well I finally worked out it was my fault. He would come rushing in from the garden wanting to tell me what a fabulous time he was having and instead of saying hello and making my usual greeting fuss of him, I was saying “oh get off you are filthy” and he just wasn’t getting his usual cuddle quota.
      I changed MY behaviour, kept a pile of old towels handy and gave my boy cuddles regardless of the state of his feet. The result was that the the attention seeking behaviour and anxiety vanished over about 3 days.
      Now (are you still with me?) Giving my dog MORE attention when he asked for it weakened the attention seeking behaviour and made it less likely to occur, which, by Skinner’s definition, makes it a punisher…..something I am doing which my dog likes and asks for is a PUNISHER…….in what universe?

    • judy b.

      I have a Tervuren that I have had since 8 weeks old. This was my first Terv, but I wanted one because I wanted a drivey dog with lots of energy that I could hike, bike and jog and have a dog to do things with. I started him in the AKC star puppy class for socialization. He was a social butterfly, but when he started to grow, he was no longer allowed to play with the other puppies because most of them were small breeds. He did nothing wrong. He sometimes played a little rough, but nothing unusual. He did have a lot of drive, and was getting very frustrated in puppy class because we were always being asked to stay in the sidelines in a down or sit while the other puppies interacted. This class was a nightmare! At the end, when he was about 16 weeks, the trainer recommended we visit with a dog behaviorist because she felt my Terv was going to be aggressive. He had started nipping at my hand when the crowd of puppies playing got to be too much for him. Not knowing any better, I contacted her. $75 and an hour later, we were no further in knowing anything. She referred me to another trainer, who also was a first time Terv owner. This trainer’s emails were good in theory, but her hands on applications stunk! When I would say I didn’t understand or started to become frustrated, she would grab the leash from my hand and harshly correct my dog. She would yell at me and the dog, saying we weren’t getting it. I hated our training sessions. I was having issues with leash walking him. Twice she flipped him on his back for wanting to chase cars, saying that was the cure. (it was not!) She suggested getting a riding crop to hit him when he wouldn’t listen. I refused. He started developing fear issues about everything. He went from being Mr. Confident to being afraid of his own shadow. The trainer said I wasn’t the kind of person that should have this kind of dog and should rehome him. I fired her and started searching for answers. But by now, my lovely Terv puppy had started distancing himself from me. He no longer trusted me. He seemed confused. I looked for another trainer that could help me, but there was none in my immediate area experienced with the breed. So that left me with internet videos and my own research. Today he is a very obedient dog. Knows his commands well. Still has some fear issues and occasionally still shuts down. I trusted these people to point me in the right direction to help me train my dog. They let us down. There are wonderful trainers out there – I read about them every day – we just didn’t have access to any of them when we needed them

      • Meagan Karnes

        So sorry you went through that. But well done for sticking with it and doing what it takes (even if that meant ditching the experts and figuring it out via the Internet) to get your dog through it!

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