What is operant conditioning and how does it apply to cats?

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Operant conditioning is a theory of behavior modification or training developed by American psychologist B.F. Skinner. Learning occurs through a reaction to positive or negative reinforcement, although the latter should not be confused with “punishment.” Basically positive reinforcement is applied, as in the case of praise and treats, while the negative variant is denied.

Skinner’s theory sought to explain how the learned behaviors humans and animals engage in every day are acquired. Unlike his predecessors in the field who thought that conditioning triggers occur before the behavior, Skinner discovered they happen afterwards. He found that the manner in which a behavior is either learned or abandoned depends on the nature of the reinforcement

The theory of operant conditioning is widely used in animal training of all forms including clicker training, which adds another layer to the process by “marking” desired behaviors with a unique and unambiguous sound.

A clicker is basically a small plastic device outfitted with a strip of metal that emits a unique popping “click” when the trainer depresses his thumb. Animals typically have no corollary sound in their environment, so the clicker is a good option as a distinct training tool.

When the animal performs the desired action correctly following the click, treats and praise are dispensed. If the dog or cat does not perform the action, the treat is withheld. The emphasis throughout the training program is on patient, positive, calm interaction with the pet.

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