Operant Conditioning – House Training

House Training is a good example to explain the benefits and limitations of Operant Conditioning. Operant Conditioning is a proven effective technique for house training puppies since it effectively uses both Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement. With puppies, we are literally “house training” meaning we are establishing expected behaviour (or routine) when they need to do their business.

Operant Conditioning works on the assumption we are starting “from scratch”, that we can use a crate to prevent indoor messing, that the dog does not know it is wrong to mess in the home, and that the dog wants to learn the expected behaviour to acquire a reward.

When Operant Conditioning fails, we need to determine the reason for the messing.

Common reasons for messing are: a type of anxiety (separation anxiety or social anxiety), bratty behaviour, marking, not knowing how to get outside or change in lifestyle/routine. The reason can often be determined by his behaviour. For example:

  • if he goes in a non-well used room or area of the home after coming in from a walk, he knows it is wrong to go inside, but may not want to go when outside due to anxiety of the outdoors (weather, loud noises, busy area, etc.);
  • if he goes on his person’s personal belongings or the bed, he is upset about something (commonly change in schedule);
  • if he was house-trained, and then regresses to messing in the home, this is a sign of anxiety caused by small changes, such as the removal of an area rug, erection of a Christmas tree, change in a room the Upward sleeps in, or change in walking attire (due to seasons);
  • if he messes by the door he normally exits through, it is a sign he wants to get out, but unable to get out (person is not home or missed the cue);
  • if he goes when alone in the home in a corner or under a table, this could be due to separation anxiety, depending on where he messes and the presence of other signs of anxiety;
  • if a male dog is prone to lifting his leg to pee on an object, such as a table leg, or a female dog pees on a certain spot on a carpet, the dogs may be marking, (as opposed to needing house training);
  • if he goes when he is outside, but also when inside, he is doing exactly what he wants to do when he wants to do it, meaning he is simply not house-trained. Operant Conditioning is often ineffective because the Dog and the person are not bonded enough – the Dog may be independent or does not see the point in learning from the person. It is often easiest and most effective to begin working with the dog in other areas to increase the bond, which changes the dog’s perception of the person, allowing for Operant Conditioning to be successful, or, more likely the dog will simply self-choose to not mess inside, making Operant Conditioning unnecessary.

In conclusion, Operant Conditioning often fails in house-training dogs over the age of six months because it does not address the reason for the messing and assumes the dog does not know it is wrong to mess inside.