Let the Dog Bark Part 2: Operant Conditioning Outcomes

B.F. Skinner and his Famous Pigeons

Yes, I did let the dog bark and bark…. and the results? First, a clash of philosophies, then a little behavioral science, and then I’ll reveal the outcome.

My boyfriend called my training technique “tough love,” his euphemism for animal cruelty. He couldn’t even bear to stick around the nights I  ignored Pixie’s piteous bark-whining to be let out.  I argue it is perfectly kind to not give an animal what she wants, just because she makes pitiful noises. Is it not up to the owner to decide what is acceptable behavior from her dog, as well as what is good for the dog? My boyfriend disagrees, preferring to do whatever the dogs seem to really really want, sometimes regardless of consequences. This is a giant bone of contention. (Ha, ha–bone.) Note: no punishment involved here. If some animal in my house felt punished, it was me, 40 decibel earplugs be damned.

If you haven’t studied classical psychology, or have forgotten the chapter on BF Skinner and Operant Conditioning, I’ll give you a quick primer on the relevant part of the findings: If an animal consistently receives a reward for a given behavior, the animal will more likely continue performing that behavior. If the reward is taken away, eventually the behavior will cease. In other words, my theory of Pixie’s night noise: If I took away her reward (skulking around the yard at 2:00 a.m.), she would eventually stop the behavior that caused her to be let out (barking and whining in the middle of the night). One might also say that Pixie trained me with her barking, only ceasing when I let her out. Clever dog.

Results? Two days of terrible sleep. I spent the first half of night one having panic attacks about the state of my relationship with my boyfriend who clashes with me on fundamentals of dog-rearing. The second half of the night:  insistent, pathetic and loud noise from the next room. Good thing I don’t live in an apartment. Night three I slept lightly, half-waiting for Pixie to fire up the vocal cords, but nothing. Night four and five. Nothing at all. Behavior extinguished.

Impossible results? Actually in hindsight the surprisingly quick results make sense. Consider Skinner’s findings on reward schedule. In my case, every single time Pixie barked, I (or my boyfriend) always let her out. This is a consistent reward schedule and behaviors produced (as in Skinner’s pigeons) on a consistent reward schedule are much less sticky than those based on inconsistent rewards. If the reward schedule is random, it is as if the animal comes to know that even if this time the reward didn’t come, next time (or the time after) surely the reward will return–so totally worthwhile continuing the behavior. Inconsistent rewards (say I had sometimes let Pixie out, sometimes not) therefore make the animal keep trying and trying and trying, refusing to believe that the reward is not coming eventually. Fortunately I’d been so consistent in letting Pixie out, that as soon as the reward was taken away, I broke the behavior-reward connection (barking at night and going out). Now, I have to stay firm in my resolve.

Meanwhile I gloat: I won twice over, not only a full night’s sleep but also (equally?), I love being right.

The process was so easy, it makes me wonder if there isn’t some way to harness the power of operant conditioning to make my brain stop “barking” (in the middle of the night and otherwise). Might I engineer my “reward structure” to change my brain’s behavior? And/or could there be a protocol of conditioning my brain’s behavior directly? Research published in the journal Neuroregulation, (Official Journal of the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research) tantalizingly suggests that the brain behavior can indeed be conditioned, using neurofeedback. Their researchers claim results are better for certain disorders than the problematic history of success using psychoactive medications. Sounds potentially hopeful to me.

What is neurofeedback, you ask? And what does it have to do with barking dogs? Stay tuned.



  1. Ha! Glad it went so well, and congratulations on being right, which is also one of my favorite things.

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