Operant vs. classical conditioning

You might hear dog trainers talk about operant conditioning and classical conditioning. Do you know what these terms mean and how they differ? (Hint: Famous Russian who rang a bell for a dog.)

Classical conditioning, also called “Pavlovian conditioning,” occurs when a dog associates a specific stimulus with a consequence; the dog performs an instinctive behavior that it has not had to learn to do. The famous anecdote about Pavlov describes how he conditioned a dog to salivate when it heard the sound of a bell.

Operant conditioning occurs when a dog associates a stimulus with a consequence but through a learned behavior; the dog must choose to do the behavior in order to receive the reward. If you show your dog a food treat but ask him to lie down (rather than dash toward the food), he must choose an action that may or may not be instinctual in order to get the food.


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