Operant conditioning versus fixed action patterns

Operant conditioning versus fixed action patterns

Skinner’s construct of instrumental learning contrasts with what the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Konrad Lorenz called “fixed patterns of action,” or reflexive, impulsive, or instinctual behavior. According to Skinner and others, these behaviors exist outside the parameters of operant conditioning, but are considered essential to a comprehensive analysis of behavior.

In dog training, the use of prey drive, especially in the training of working dogs, detection dogs, etc., stimulating these fixed patterns of action related to the dog’s predatory instincts are the key to creating a very difficult, but consistent behavior, and in most cases do not involve operant, classical, or other types of conditioning. While evolutionary processes shaped these fixed action patterns, the patterns themselves remained stable long enough to be shaped by the long period of time necessary for evolution due to their survival function (i.e., operant conditioning).

According to the laws of operant conditioning, any behavior that is consistently rewarded, each time, will disappear at a faster rate, while intermittently reinforcing behavior leads to more stable levels of behavior that are relatively more resistant to extinction. Thus, with detection dogs, any correct “find” cue behavior should always be rewarded with a pull toy or ball toss early for initial acquisition of the behavior. Then, fading procedures are introduced in which the rate of reinforcement is “diluted” (not every response is reinforced), switching the dog to an intermittent schedule of reinforcement that is more robust to instances of no reinforcement.

However, some trainers now use prey drive to train domestic dogs and find that they achieve much better results in dogs’ responses to training than when they use only the principles of operant conditioning, which according to Skinner and his students Keller and Marian Breland (who invented clicker training), fall apart when strong instincts come into play.

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