Science and Animal Training #3: Behavior Science Principles

The application of behavior science is based on the behavior science principles of Stimulation, Reinforcement, Extinction, Punishment, and Generalization. Anyone who has a dog uses these principles every day, but you may not realize the power you have to use them deliberately.

Stimulation or The Stimulus 

Stimulation is giving a cue. The stimulus is whatever causes the animal to do a particular behavior.  If you have trained your dog to do so, he may “sit” when you say “sit”. Saying “sit” is giving a cue; the sound of the word stimulates the dog to do the behavior. There are many more stimuli in the picture along with the word, though.  For instance, your position is part of the cue. Maybe your dog only sits if you’re standing in front of him when you say it. Give this a try: sit in a chair and say “sit”. If your dog doesn’t sit the first time you try this, he is not wrong! You’ve never taught him to sit under those conditions. The “stimulus picture” is very different when you’re sitting, with your face so much closer to your dog, than when you’re standing in front of him.

The Stimulus Picture

The familiar environment at home with the family is part of the stimulus picture in which you say “sit” and your dog sits.  At the park with lots of people, dogs, nature smells, and more, things are different. You may say “sit” and your dog may act like he has no idea you’re talking.  With so many stimuli around him, it’s harder for him to pick out the specific verbal cue you gave him. It’s not because he can’t hear you, it’s because his brain is occupied with the multitude of stimuli. You have to go through a teaching process to train him to respond the way you want in that particular situation.  Training the behavior initially at home where your dog is comfortable is the best plan. Get the cue in place at home. Change the stimulus picture in as many ways as you can at home. But then train in other places, under other conditions.


Training in new places, under new conditions, is using the principle of Generalization. It means the dog can learn to generalize his response to the cue “sit” in a variety of different situations. He can learn to sit on cue on different surfaces, when different people say the cue, and with different distracting stimuli going on around him.  He can learn to do the behavior in any situation, but you have to go through a teaching process to help him learn in each of those settings. When he’s learned to “sit” in a few different situations, it gets easier for him to learn it in more. As he generalizes the behavior to the cue, he gets better at generalizing.


Reinforcement is perhaps the most fun of the behavior science principles. When the dog gets the behavior right, you get to reinforce it, which is fun for you and the dog. You get to give your dog a treat or allow him some privilege he enjoys after he does a behavior you like. Reinforcement causes the behavior to happen more often, which is the point of training. The dog will start doing the behavior, with more intensity, and more frequently, just what you wanted.  This is the Positive Reinforcement upon which all our training is founded, and that you hear so much about in the dog training world these days.


Extinction is figuring out what reinforcement a dog may be getting for a behavior you don’t like, and taking control to stop that from happening.  Why does a dog jump up on people?  To get attention?  Removing all instances of the dog getting attention by jumping up on people allows that behavior to “extinguish” (become extinct).  Even yelling and pushing a dog off of you may be reinforcing the behavior of jumping up, so pay attention. Even telling the dog to get “down” or “off” may be reinforcing it. Take a look at what’s really going on – analyze it with an open mind and change something if you want to change the behavior. It works, though it usually requires the dog owner to use prevention tactics. 

Extinction is a challenge to use. Humans have a lot going on and may find it challenging to be observant of dogs at all times in order to accomplish extinction.  It’s useful in training, nonetheless – especially when accompanied by teaching the dog an alternate behavior. For instance, if your dog automatically sits when he greets someone, he can’t be jumping up. Sitting is an alternate behavior to jumping up that you can reinforce and build.


Punishment is often given by the environment. One example is the sting of a wasp after a dog noses around a nest. Sometimes being sprayed by a skunk after a dog attempts to prey on one is a punishment. Some dogs seem to get sprayed by skunks repeatedly though, meaning the punishment isn’t working very well.  That’s one problem with using punishment. The definition is “something given after a behavior that diminishes (hopefully eliminates) that behavior in the future.”  Often, people apply something they think is a punisher for a behavior and find that behavior still occurs. The dog now is afraid of the owner, or afraid of the room where the punishment occurred. Now the owner has to focus their training on building the dog’s confidence and helping him get over his fear. 

The good news is that management of the dog, prevention of behaviors you don’t want, and reinforcement of behaviors you like is better for training than using punishment is, even for high level behaviors like service dog work, operative and working dogs, performance training, and more.

Understanding the Behavior Science Principles

The behavior science principles of Stimulation, Generalization, Reinforcement, Extinction, and Punishment are simple but they may be new concepts for you. Observe and understand what your dog is responding to. Be aware of your own behavior. The behavior principles work for you, too. The reinforcement you get when your dog behaves like a perfect angel can help you remember to practice training exercises to maintain that lovely behavior.

Science and Animal Training #4: Science-based Dog Training Matters

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