Operant conditioning… hey, I actually learned something in college

Posted on April 1, 2009. Filed under: dogs, pets | Tags: , , , , |

I’m a psychology major about to graduate in about 3 months and people always ask me if I’m trying to be a psychologist. The answer is no. And while I don’t know any statistical data, I am pretty sure only a very small percentage of psych majors end up as registered psychologists. Anyway, while I still am not particularly clear on my precise direction in life, I will be exiting the education stage of my life with a bit of new information. This was realized on my first real shift volunteering at the shelter.

Cooper was a hyper, young (around a year old) black lab who had been at the shelter for perhaps a couple months. I had gotten the impression that most volunteers were reluctant to take him on a walk because of his perceived high energy– and no one likes to walk the high energy dogs because they pull and pull on their leash and make the walk much more difficult. So me being naïve as I am, decided to take this pup for my next walk.

After picking out a leash and stuffing a couple of poo bags in my pocket, I headed toward his cage. Like many dogs, Cooper was the type to get super-excited when he saw a leash coming toward him because it means he gets to escape the noisy shelter and confinement of metal bars and break free to the great outdoors. This is where I got the idea to test out some of my knowledge on him.

Operant conditioning. It’s where a behavior changes by consequence reinforcement. Do something bad, negative consequence lessens the behavior. Do something good, positive consequenses reinforce the behavior. So every time Cooper put his paws up on the cage door, I took a step back. When he had his feet on the floor, I stepped forward. It was a silly little game between us that ended up working like a charm! I had Cooper quiet and standing “4 on the floor” by the time I was inside his cage and leashing him up. And it turned out that he was a fantastic walker. He didn’t pull or go crazy outside, all he really wanted was to get out of that cage and spread his wings a little (so to speak).

Suffice to say, I only visited the shelter three times a week for two hours at a time, so all the rest of the time the other volunteers let him jump on the door and go crazy so it kinda killed any effort I had made at working on his behavior. I’m excited to work on my own dog one day… she’s going to be my A+ student.

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