Operant conditioning is the behavioural science in which actions are learned as a result of their consequences – the giving or removal of rewards or punishment. In positive reinforcement, rewards are given contingent upon your dog offering the desired behaviour. The debate in dog training has focussed on whether to train by means or reward, punishment or a combination of the two. There has been less focus on the stimulus control aspect of operant conditioning. Some psychologists define operant conditioning as bringing the behaviour under stimulus control. The behaviour is strengthened by means of reward, but the dog learns to do it when (and only when) asked by means of a command, signal or cue, rather than spontaneously. The dog also learns to respond differently to different stimuli – to sit when asked to sit, to drop when asked to drop and so on.
So stimulus discrimination operant conditioning means more than simply rewarding and reinforcing a behaviour. It means teaching your dog to discriminate between different cues, and offer the appropriate behaviour for that cue, which can then be rewarded. You can offer your dog a target. A dog who hasn’t learned what to do might spontaneously paw at it, nudge it with her nose , look behind it or bark at it. You can then decide what to reinforce. When you have taught your dog two separate behaviours, say for example to hit the target with her paw, and to nudge it with her nose, stimulus discrimination operant conditioning means that she learns to nudge when you say “push” (for example) or paw when you say “hit it” (for example).