An Animal Trainer's Introduction To
Operant and Classical Conditioning

Stacy Braslau-Schneck, MA
Stacy's Wag'N'Train

en Espanñol

This page is dedicated to all those seeking to use positive reinforcement in animal training, especially those on the ClickerSolutions, ClickTrain and Click-L e-mail discussion list s....

and to "The Ds", Phoenix, Akeakamai, Elele and Hiapo, who taught me almost all I needed to know...


...and to Shayna, for whom it was too late.


This page attempts to explain Operant Conditioning, and promote the use of Positive Reinforcement and Negative Punishment in animal training. Last updated November 12, 2003. For awards this page has won, click here.

Contents (click on the section title to jump to that section)

Learning Theory and Learning Theory

Classical Conditioning

Operant Conditioning

Four possible consequences of a behavior

Positive Reinforcement

Schedules of Reinforcement and Extinction

Negative Punishment

Positive Punishment

Negative Reinforcement

Audio Format


Pop Quiz

Getting Started with Clicker Training

Who's Using Clicker Training


Learning Theory and Learning Theory

"Learning Theory" is a discipline of psychology that attempts to explain how an organism learns. It consists of many different theories of learning, including instincts, social facilitation, observation, formal teaching, memory, mimicry, and classical and operant conditioning. It is these last two that are of most interest to animal trainers. Communicate Better With Your Pet!


Why should animal trainers be bothered with learning the theory behind how their animals learn? Many excellent trainers have no formal schooling or organized understanding of how their training is effective or how their charges work. But training is both an art and a science. More and more trainers - pet owners, show competitors, horseback riders, show-business trainers, zookeepers, aquarium trainers and more - are finding that an understanding of learning theory helps them understand their animals' behaviors better, and plan their training accordingly. So trainers are learning the theory of learning theory!

Classical or "Pavlovian" Conditioning


Classical Conditioning is the type of learning made famous by Pavlov's experiments with dogs. The gist of the experiment is this: Pavlov presented dogs with food, and measured their salivary response (how much they drooled). Then he began ringing a bell just before presenting the food. At first, the dogs did not begin salivating until the food was presented. After a while, however, the dogs began to salivate when the sound of the bell was presented. They learned to associate the sound of the bell with the presentation of the food. As far as their immediate physiological responses were concerned, the sound of the bell became equivalent to the presentation of the food.

Classical conditioning is used by trainers for two purposes: To condition (train) autonomic responses, such as the drooling, producing adrenaline, or reducing adrenaline (calming) without using the stimuli that would naturally create such a response; and, to create an association between a stimulus that normally would not have any effect on the animal and a stimulus that would.

Stimuli that animals react to without training are called primary or unconditioned stimuli (US). They include food, pain, and other "hardwired" or "instinctive" stimuli. Animals do not have to learn to react to an electric shock, for example. Pavlov's dogs did not need to learn about food.

Stimuli that animals react to only after learning about them are called secondary or conditioned stimuli (CS). These are stimuli that have been associated with a primary stimulus. In Pavlov's experiment, the sound of the bell meant nothing to the dogs at first. After its sound was associated with the presentation of food, it became a conditioned stimulus. If a warning buzzer is associated with the shock, the animals will learn to fear it.

Secondary stimuli are things that the trainee has to learn to like or dislike. Examples include school grades and money. A slip of paper with an "A" or an "F" written on it has no meaning to a person who has never learned the meaning of the grade. Yet students work hard to gain "A's" and avoid "F's". A coin or piece of paper money has no meaning to a person who doesn't use that sort of system. Yet people have been known to work hard to gain this secondary reinforcer. (See an interactive visual guide to CC here - and an amusing take on classical conditioning here.)


Classical conditioning is very important to animal trainers, because it is difficult to supply an animal with one of the things it naturally likes (or dislikes) in time for it to be an important consequence of the behavior. In other words, it's hard to toss a fish to a dolphin while it's in the middle of a jump or finding a piece of equipment on the ocean floor a hundred meters below. So trainers will associate something that's easier to "deliver" with something the animal wants through classical conditioning. Some trainers call this a bridge (because it bridges the time between when the animal performs a desired behavior and when it gets its reward). Marine mammal trainers use a whistle. Many other trainers use a clicker, a cricket-like box with a metal tongue that makes a click-click sound when you press it.

You can classically condition a clicker by clicking it and delivering some desirable treat, many times in a row. Simply click the clicker, pause a moment, and give the dog (or other animal) the treat. After you've done this a few times, you may see the animal visibly startle, look towards the treat, or look to you. This indicates that she's starting to form the association. Some clicker trainers call this "charging up the clicker". It's also called "creating a conditioned reinforcer". The click sound becomes a signal for an upcoming reinforcement. As a shorthand, some clicker trainers will say that the click = the treat. (Read more about how to get started with clicker training here.)

Operant Conditioning

Classical conditioning forms an association between two stimuli. Operant conditioning forms an association between a behavior and a consequence. (It is also called response-stimulus or RS conditioning because it forms an association between the animal's response [behavior] and the stimulus that follows [consequence])

Four Possible Consequences

There are four possible consequences to any behavior. They are:

Something Good can start or be presented;
Something Good can end or be taken away;
Something Bad can start or be presented;
Something Bad can end or be taken away.

Consequences have to be immediate, or clearly linked to the behavior. With verbal humans, we can explain the connection between the consequence and the behavior, even if they are separated in time. For example, you might tell a friend that you'll buy dinner for them since they helped you move, or a parent might explain that the child can't go to summer camp because of her bad grades. With very young children, humans who don't have verbal skills, and animals, you can't explain the connection between the consequence and the behavior. For the animal, the consequence has to be immediate. The way to work around this is to use a bridge (see above).

Technical Terms

The technical term for "an event started" or "an item presented" is positive, since it's something that's added to the animal's environment.

The technical term for "an event ended" or "an item taken away" is negative, since it's something that's subtracted from the animal's environment.

Anything that increases a behavior - makes it occur more frequently, makes it stronger, or makes it more likely to occur - is termed a reinforcer. Often, an animal (or person) will perceive "starting Something Good" or "ending Something Bad" as something worth pursuing, and they will repeat the behaviors that seem to cause these consequences. These consequences will increase the behaviors that lead to them, so they are reinforcers. These are consequences the animal will work to attain, so they strengthen the behavior.

Anything that decreases a behavior - makes it occur less frequently, makes it weaker, or makes it less likely to occur - is termed a punisher. Often, an animal (or person) will perceive "ending Something Good" or "starting Something Bad" as something worth avoiding, and they will not repeat the behaviors that seem to cause these consequences. These consequences will decrease the behaviors that lead to them, so they are punishers.

Applying these terms to the Four Possible Consequences, you get:

Something Good can start or be presented, so behavior increases = Positive Reinforcement (R+)

Something Good can end or be taken away, so behavior decreases = Negative Punishment (P-)

Something Bad can start or be presented, so behavior decreases = Positive Punishment (P+)

Something Bad can end or be taken away, so behavior increases = Negative Reinforcement (R-)


(behavior increases)

(behavior decreases)
(something added)
Positive Reinforcement:
Something added increases behavior
Positive Punishment
Something added decreases behavior
(something removed)
Negative Reinforcement
Something removed increases behavior
Negative Punishment
Something removed decreases behavior

Remember that these definitions are based on their actual effect on the behavior in question: they must reduce or strengthen the behavior to be considered a consequence and be defined as a punishment or reinforcement. Pleasures meant as rewards but that do not strengthen a behavior are indulgences, not reinforcement; aversives meant as a behavior weakener but which do not weaken a behavior are abuse, not punishment.

Click here to go on to Part Two of
An Animal Trainer's Guide to Operant and Classical Conditioning

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