Some of you are already aware that my wife and I recently adopted a puppy. Reggie is about four months old and filled with energy and curiosity (and urine that gets expelled at unpredictable times). Those of you who are dog owners know well how much time and energy need to be devoted for properly training a puppy. Coincidentally, I just interrupted my typing to catch Reggie chewing through a binder; he’s teething and does not suffer from weak jaws.
Anyhow, there’s a lot to be learned from training puppies. In fact, those who do well at this, whether they know it or not, are skillfully using the behavioral reinforcement principles of operant and classical conditioning. Puppies want to please. They love to get rewarded for conduct that will make their owners happy. Treats, pats on the back, belly rubs, etc., all help to teach your puppy the rules of a harmonious home life.
Skilled trainers also offer their pets large amounts of love, play, and companionship. In addition to training the puppy with reinforcement, owners bond with their pets through emotional connections that help to keep the relationship, and good behavior, consistently strong.
As I’ve been training Reggie the constant parallels between educating him about our household’s expectations and educating a partner or child have been striking. Rarely do couples, parents, or workers talk about “training” their partner, children, or co-workers but that’s exactly what happens. Human training includes several strategies. Reinforcers (e.g., praise, a pat on the back, a verbal “good job!”) tend to increase the strength of a particular behavioral response. Punishers (e.g., a verbal reprimand or the withholding of attention) tend to decrease the strength of a particular response. The selective application of both, with far more reinforcers than punishers, in a purposeful manner can radically shape the course of a relationship for the better. People, like puppies, are quite trainable and through counseling you, too, can learn to be a skilled trainer.