Conditioning in Dog Training: The Basics

Key Points

  • Conditioning in dog training teaches your dog that certain behaviors have a specific reaction.

  • When you implement conditioning in dog training, be consistent and use various methods to solidify your pup's behaviors.

  • Classical and operant conditioning are different tools for you and your canine to use in your training regimen.

  • To ensure the training is effective, focus on timing, avoid distractions, and find the right rewards system.

Picture it: You've been dying to take your pup to the dog park — you've practiced all the basic commands and you're confident they're ready! The second you let them loose among the other dogs, though, they run around recklessly, causing all the other dogs to go haywire. You immediately feel the judgemental looks of all the other dog owners.

Owning a dog sometimes means realizing their training isn't as concrete as you want it to be. Conditioning in dog training is essential for solidifying positive behaviors in your dog. Proper training takes time and repetition. When you incorporate conditioning in dog training, you allow your dog to form good habits and learn associations they take with them wherever they go.

What Is Classical Conditioning in Dog Training?

Classical conditioning teaches your dog to react to various stimuli. Do you have a reactive dog? One way to use classical conditioning is by turning on a movie or video with other dogs or animals. When you activate this external stimulus, your dog eventually grows comfortable around it.

Does your dog fear the vacuum cleaner? For a short while each day, turn the vacuum on and work on keeping them calm and comfortable. If you use the vacuum without conditioning, your pup's fear persists.

Training your dog is like peeling back the layers of an onion. You won't know all of your dog's triggers or weak spots until they encounter certain experiences that reveal them to you. With each new behavior, use classical dog training tips and find ways to implement them into your dog's life in small doses.

Rewarding a dog for giving paw

What Is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning involves teaching your dog certain behaviors based on reinforcement methods. These methods are anything from food and toys to pets and belly rubs. It's up to you to discover your dog's best reinforcement tools.

The reinforcement method you use depends on the location and environment your dog is in. Some dogs behave very well indoors, but once they're outside they don't listen as well or respond the same to their standard reinforcement measures.

Operant conditioning has four quadrants: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is one of the most highly favored forms of training. This method of training works because it teaches your dog that certain behaviors illicit a positive reward. Food is an excellent tool for positive reinforcement training because dogs are very food-driven creatures.

Say you want to teach your dog not to jump on the couch. As soon as their puppy energy activates, keeping them off the sofa is difficult without proper training. Start forming good behavior by sitting on the couch and calling their name. As soon as they run towards you, stop them before they leap on the couch.

Give your pup a treat as soon as they stop and calm down. Continue this process every time they're ready to jump on the couch until they understand that the behavior doesn't earn them a reward. This kind of positive reinforcement makes training your dog easier.

Food isn't the only form of positive reinforcement. Toys, words of affirmation, and physical affection are also great choices for you to incorporate into your training. Play around with some of these reward systems and find one that works best for you and your pup.

Dog training with Husky

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is on the opposite end of the spectrum. It's debatable whether you should use negative reinforcement in your dog training regimen because it's not always effective.

Expert dog trainer Lynda Lobo tells Figo why negative reinforcement isn't necessarily the best option:

"If your dog is barking or lunging at another dog, you need to simply turn around and walk the other way. You don’t want to punish that behavior because when you do, you are reinforcing in the dog’s mind that the person or other dog is scary: As a result, your dog will feel he was right in lunging because he needs to keep them away."

With this training method, you create some form of discipline whenever your dog behaves unfavorably until they correct that behavior. A prime example is using a shock or prong collar. When wearing this kind of collar, your dog receives a shock anytime they bark, for example. These contraptions aren't needed in dog training as they cause unnecessary pain and stress for your pup.

Another gentler example of negative reinforcement is leash slack. Pull the leash in towards you and only release it when your dog behaves properly. Reel in some of the leash's slack when your dog starts barking or trying to lead you. This teaches them that when they perform a specific behavior, they lose some freedom. This approach isn't painful or harmful to your pet and is an effective way to gain a sense of control on your walks.

Positive Punishment

Trying to get your dog to understand everything you want from them is like comparing apples to oranges — it doesn't make sense and isn't realistic. Positive punishment uses unpleasant stimuli to train your pup.

Dog whistles are an example of positive punishment. You blow the whistle anytime your dog jumps on the sofa, chews up a shoe, or does any other undesirable behavior. After a while, your dog associates the annoying sound with certain behaviors and understands that the behavior must stop if they don't want to hear the sound anymore.

The point of this method isn't to punish your dog. Instead, it helps them form a negative association with certain behaviors without the use of actual punishment.

Training heel with Malinois

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment isn't painful or harmful for your pet. It simply means removing something that your dog enjoys whenever they act out.

One example of this is withholding your dog's food dish until they sit or calm down at mealtime. Place the food dish in front of them and pick it back up if they try gorging on the food before you lay it down. Continue this process while using verbal commands and tell them how you want them to behave. After a while, they begin to understand that in order to get their food they must be still and wait for your command to eat.

Does your dog have a jumping problem? Putting your dog behind a doggy gate when you have a guest come over is a great way to enact negative punishment training. Dogs are notorious for jumping out of their skin from excitement anytime someone new enters your home. Placing them behind a gate until they calm down teaches them that jumping and scratching isn't acceptable.

What Is the Difference Between Correction and Positive Reinforcement?

Correction is a bit different than positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement rewards good behavior. Correction is how you fix or alter bad behavior. There are many ways to do this, using positive or negative punishment or any other forms of discipline.

Usually, correction comes second, whereas positive reinforcement comes first. The reinforcement is essential for your dog's progress, and without it, correction isn't necessarily effective.

Dog training class

Why Is Operant Conditioning Important in Dog Training?

Operant conditioning is essential in dog training because dogs are more prone to follow behaviors based on the consequences they receive. Without operant conditioning, your dog doesn't have any consequential associations with certain behaviors. They act any way they choose until you implement operant conditioning in their training.

Changing Your Dog's Behavior

The behaviors you want your dog to have are often different from their instincts. It's important to recognize that their instincts aren't bad. Dog training is like trying to learn a new language. It takes time, effort, and repetition in order for it to be effective.

Dogs are impulsive creatures. At first, you can't control your dog's impulses. Don't give up on their training if they have problems listening. If you have a puppy, you never know how well they'll learn new behaviors until you start your training.

Some dogs pick up on new behaviors and overcome negative ones quickly, usually thanks to positive reinforcement of some kind. Other dogs are difficult and take more time to solidify these new behavioral patterns.

Don't give up! Use all of the tools available to you. Implement a combination of classical and operant conditioning until your dog is on their best behavior. Play around with different reward systems until you find one that sticks.

How Do You Know When Your Training Is Complete?

Your dog's training is complete when the behavior becomes a natural part of their routine. Say you train your dog to sit in a specific spot before mealtime to prevent them from jumping at you while you lay down their dish. With enough practice, your dog learns this behavior and performs it right before mealtime.

Training dog to sit

You know the training is complete when you no longer have to command your dog or use positive reinforcement. No dog is perfect and hiccups in their training along the way are normal. If you notice your dog behaving poorly, fall back into a consistent training routine. As dogs grow out of their puppy age, they learn new behaviors easily and consistently follow them.

Why Isn't Conditioning Working?

In order for conditioning to be effective, take certain steps to ensure your dog receives proper training. Distractions, timing, inconsistency, and poor reward systems are usually the culprit.


When you train your dog early on make sure there aren't any distractions keeping them from staying focused. Focus plays an important role in your dog learning new behaviors, and without it they won't be able to pick up on them. Practice conditioning training in a calm, comfortable environment that's free from distractions.


Your dog doesn't form new behavior patterns without consistency. Consistency helps them focus and remember commands and the rewards associated with them. Commit to the training regardless if you're in the beginning stages or somewhere near the end.


Timing refers to how soon you use a reward or discipline while you train. If you wait too long to reward your dog, they don't associate it with the right behavior and get confused. The reward or disciplinary action needs to occur directly after the behavior so your pup creates a connection between the two.

Poor Reward System

Having an effective reward system motivates your dog. Without it, they lack the focus and desire needed to learn new behaviors. Play around with the reward system until you find one that suits their fancy. Remain open to finding new ways to implement positive reinforcement because your dog's reward system may change as they get older.

Giving treat reward to pup

Don't Forget To Have a Little Fun

Conditioning in dog training doesn't have to be mundane. Make the experience fun for both you and your pup. Get excited when they learn new behaviors and get creative with your commands.

Allowing yourself to have fun in the moment relieves any stress you may have throughout the process. Don't be afraid to fail or circle back in your training. It's all part of the process.

Your dog evolves into the best version of themselves with the right conditioning training and consistency.

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