31 Mar 2022


Training Dogs using Operant Conditioning

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Academic level: College

Paper type: Term Paper

Words: 1016

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The article ‘The efficiency of the model-revival method when compared with operant conditioning for training dogs to perform a retrieval selection task’ was written by Sue McKinley and Robert J. Young in 2002. According to McKinley & Young (p. 358), operant conditioning was a method used to train dogs and other animals to perform behaviors commanded. Operant condition as explained, trains dogs locally to carry out obedience orders. The paper below is a summary of how dogs are trained using operant conditioning.


In psychology the cognitive perspective is defined as the study of how the mind processes information, particularly how we remember things. The study explains how dogs can learn through observation. It explains how Puppies watch their mothers and learn new behavioral risks. Humans have not made efforts to teach dogs social learning methods like the ones employed in parrots yet dogs have an ability to learn from observation. All this goes with cognitive perspective. The “social brain” hypothesis is what has been mostly emphasized. This is the evolved intelligence used to solve social problems (p.358).

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The method used in this research is case study. According to McKinley & Young (p.358), a case study is an individual’s biography that has been carefully drawn. The study is about an African grey parrot named Alex. He is taught how to recognize objects given their names, color, shape, quantity and size. The model revival method by Pepperberg explains Alex standing on a perch before Pepperberg and his assistant. One is the trainer while the other is a model -rival. The model rival is basically a trainer’s model for the expected behavior and a rival for the attention of the trainer. The trainer asks a question and presents the object to the model-rival; if they answer correctly they are praised and awarded the object. The trainer shows his disapproval, scolds them and removes the object from the view if they answer the question incorrectly. Alex is allowed to join after watching. He is trained and allowed to choose an object which is rewarded to him each time he answers questions correctly. The reward in this case is intrinsic, meaning the label is owned by the specific object (p. 359). Extrinsic reward however is given in most training. This is where a dog is asked to bring the ball and when he does he is rewarded food. Pepperberg’s argument is that animal’s trained using model rivals know the objects and why they want them. He however argues that giving extrinsic rewards to the birds makes them believe the words taught to them relates to the food item they receive instead of the object shown to them .The trainer and the model rival change positions so that the bird responds to more than one person. According to studies done on humans, words likely to be recalled are the ones at a sentence end (359). Therefore, the target word is at the end of the sentence. Model –rival technique that allows training carries a huge potential and explores cognitive abilities of their extremely social animal kind like home dogs. This method has instances of failure, for instance Lar Gibbon who experienced aggressive species in his experiment where he attached the model-rival. Therefore it is important to check how efficient a species is before using the method (p.359).

Participants / Procedure

An experiment was done on nine dogs using Operant conditioning and techniques of model rhyming. The purpose of the experiment was to see how the dogs perform in bringing out the named object after training . The subjects comprised of samples of pet dogs, 3 males and six females. They were a mixed breed of mean ages 55.20and 16.88 months. These were day boarders at De Montfort University animal are unit. Dog owners agreed through writing and they had their dog details filled in questionnaires. Objects used were two groups of rubber toys. One group included three red rubber dog toys while the other three yellow rubber dog toys including saxophone, a hammer and a tooth brush. The object retrieved was decided randomly by the experimenter. The red toy was labeled SOCKS while the yellow CROSS. The purpose was for each dog to choose same label and eliminate confounding errors .The training methods were alternated between the dogs. Operant training method was used to locate and bring the item named to the trainer. 

Another technique used was the modal-rival training method. This involved securing the dog by a lead half a meter from the trainer and the modal rival that were positioned in front of the dog. There was a dialogue between the trainer and the model-rival. They discussed about the item targeted. The number of times the object was named was recorded. The dog, after this conversation was asked to get the object which was 3meters away. When the dog failed to bring the object, the trial was repeated. The experimenter and the model rival spoke in a high animated way to keep the dog interested (p.359).The distance of retrieving the object was the same as the experimenter stood behind the dog during trials. This then reduced bias and ensured that the dog was not pushed by the experiment to any side. Chances of obtaining a side bias were reduced. The trial was complete only when the dog got the targeted item from the line up and gave it to the experimenter. In case the dog failed to choose the item three times, the process of training was repeated (p.361).

Timing was among the variables used to analyze the results. Normality was checked by Anderson Darling test and found not to meet the parametric statistics requirements. The data therefore was transformed using a square root transformation to check normality (p.361).There were no effects on the training method and time. Therefore, for both variables dogs learnt the same rate and performed similar tasks at a similar speed. This method was concluded to have a potential to be used in the future. The method’s power lies with intrinsic and extrinsic rewards because it helps the dog to know the name of the object where he was able to retrieve it back (p.365).

From the above summary, it is evident that dogs can be trained using operant conditioning. This method involves an animal learns how to get an object mentioned through trainings done to it. With the help of a model- rival and communication with the experimenter, the dog is able to retrieve the object to the experimenter. When this is done successfully, the dog is rewarded thorough extrinsic reward which is giving the dog food. The dog then gets used to getting the object and being rewarded.


McKinley, S., & Young, R. J. (2003). The efficacy of the model-rival method when compared with operant conditioning for training domestic dogs to perform a retrieval-selection task. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 81, 4, 357-365

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StudyBounty. (2023, September 15). Training Dogs using Operant Conditioning.


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