My puppy/toddler training originates almost entirely from the principles of operant conditioning. But you don’t need to worry about learning all that, because it can get really dense.
(For example, in university, I once had to do a literature review about developing an equation for what a rat will do when faced with a certain complicated scenario. The whole argument comes down to a tiny difference in the coefficients of the equation, and the behaviorists on either side of the argument won’t speak to each other at conferences.
People are nuts.)
That aside, all you need to know is that the entirety of ‘operant conditioning’ can be condensed into…
Two Simple Rules
- If doing something gets us what we want, we probably will do it again.
- If something doesn’t get us what we want, we probably won’t do it again.
You can use this to your advantage by creating two baisc household rules:
- If you do what I want, good things happen.
- If you don’t do what I want, nothing good happens.
Do you see your dog sitting? Give him a treat. Did your child remember to say please? Tell her yes, she can have an extra big glass of milk because she asked so nicely!
The best thing about this kind of behavior modification is that it is win-win.
You don’t have to feel bad that you are manipulating your dog/child. If you get what YOU want, they get what THEY want.
That’s just teamwork.
Now, let’s look at the second rule. Your dog won’t bring the ball close enough? Then you don’t throw it again. Your child won’t go upstairs without a fuss? Then no bed time story. This isn’t being mean. This is teaching basic consequences.
Have you ever run into one of those people who doesn’t seem to understand that their actions have consequences? If you have ever worked in customer service, I am SURE you have. As a dog trainer, I can tell you that MOST of the dogs I get called to see never learned this simple lesson, and that turns them into jerks.
Life has consequences. If you don’t do your job, you get fired. If you don’t wipe your counters, you get ants. If you don’t go upstairs in a timely manner, there’s no time for bed time stories.
That’s life, and it’s better to learn it at age 2 than to learn it at age 30.
Because we DO learn.
Dogs learn fast that if they don’t drop that toy when told to do so, that the toy will be taken away. But if they DO drop the toy, they’ll get a treat and the toy will get thrown again.
Soon they’re practically chucking the toy in your direction.
Toddlers learn fast that if they scramble upstairs fast, they get an extra story, but if they fuss and drag their feet, they get no stories at all. Soon they’re racing you upstairs at bed time.
And then everyone’s happy.
Note! Do not confuse this with bribery!
Many people end up using bribes to make their dog or child behave. Proper training does not require bribes. Instead, make use of natural consequences, both good and bad.
Bribery introduces a prospective reward as a sort of dangling carrot to convince the other person to behave. The two household rules I mention above simply provide positive or negative consequences for behaving/misbehaving.
“If you sit still, I will give you a cookie after dinner” is bribery.
“You must sit still if you want to eat your dinner. If you don’t sit still, we will have to leave the restaurant and you will be hungry,” is not.
What I want = What you want
What I don’t want = what you don’t want