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Dog Training and Behavior Terms Defined: “What do you mean by that?”

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If you know about me, this lil’ ol’ certified professional dog trainer of The Inquisitive Canine here in Ventura, then you know I prefer to sit in the “science camp” of dog training. I’m usually pretty cautious when throwing around the science jargon, but if you’ve ever taken one of my dog training classes, or worked with me for private dog training, then a few of the behavior specific expressions may have been discussed.

The waters can get muddy sometimes. So what I’d like to do is define some of the widely used, more popular, dog training language that is currently being heard more frequently, but in layman’s terms. Along with the definition, if appropriate, I’ll throw in a human analogy as well. I have found that this helps us humans relate better to our pet dogs.

  • Aversive: Anything an animal considers ‘bad’ – anything unpleasant, painful, annoying, uncomfortable. A strong dislike or disinclination; tending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus. e.g: Shouting, hitting, ignoring, jerking with the leash, squirt bottles, applying pain intentionally, grabbing, restraining, noxious sprays, and electric shock.
  • Behavior: the way in which one acts or conducts oneself. Any action performed that can be observed and measured. e.g: Your dog resting in their bed.
  • Bridge: AKA ‘bridging stimulus’ or ‘marker’ A stimulus (something an animal sees, hears, feels) that pinpoints the exact moment in time an action of a desired behavior was performed – bridging the gap between the time the signal was given and the delivery of a reward is provided. e.g: The ‘click’ of a clicker, the sound of a whistle.
  • Classical Conditioning: AKA: ‘ Respondent Conditioning’, ‘Pavlovian Conditioning’
  1. A learning process that occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired: a response that is at first elicited by the second stimulus is eventually elicited by the first stimulus alone.
  2. Conditioning in which the conditioned stimulus (as the sound of a bell) is paired with and precedes the unconditioned stimulus (as the sight of food) until the conditioned stimulus alone is sufficient to elicit the response (as salivation in a dog)
  • Conditioning: Learning. *Observe your dogs behavior. If their behavior changes, learning is taking place.
  • Consequence: An action or event that occurs after a behavior. It can affect how often that behavior will occur again in the future.
  • Counter-conditioning: Taking a fear-provoking event, which is associated with an unpleasant situation, and changing (countering or reversing) the association to one that predicts something pleasant. Reversal the learned response. Often used in conjunction with desensitization. 
  • Cue: A signal which will elicit a specific behavior or reflex. e.g: Saying “sit” or using hand signal for “sit”. 
  • Desensitization: Process where normal defense reactions elicited by an aversive stimulus, such as shock, are modified by creating pleasant associations with a positive reinforcer. This is achieved by presenting the fear-provoking event (stimulus) at levels low enough not to cause a reaction, but enough for the animal to notice, while pairing this event (stimulus) with something the animal loves causing the feelings to be reversed. Levels of intensity are gradually increased, as long as the animal stays below the fear-provoking level of intensity. Used in conjunction with counter-conditioning.
  • Discrimination: The ability to differentiate between to similar competing stimuli. The ability to perceive differences in various aspects of the environment.
  • Flooding: AKA: Exposure “Response Prevention.” An extinction process used to treat anxiety and fear-related disorders. Animal is exposed to specific anxiety producing stimulus at levels high enough until the animal no longer reacts. Intention of this treatment is for animal to relearn coping skills when exposed to stimulus, however this is considered amongst many to be cruel and unethical, and often doesn’t work, depending upon the animal, and what the anxiety producing stimulus is.
  • Generalization: The process of comparing events, consequences or objects which have some trait in common and recognizing those commonalities between them. The tendency to respond to a class of stimuli rather than only to the one to which the animal was originally conditioned to. Make for wide general use or application. e.g: Dog can perform the same behavior in any setting when asked to do so without having to relearn.
  • Habituation: the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus. The relatively persistent fading of a response as a result of repeated stimulation which is not followed by any specific reinforcement. AKA: Passive Desensitization.
  • Instinct: An inborn predisposition to behave in a specific way when appropriately stimulated. Instincts are species specific complex behaviors. They are natural and unconditioned qualities shared by all members of a species. e.g. dogs chasing things, guarding their bones, digging, chewing, jumping up to greet.
  • Learned Helplessness: A condition created by exposure to inescapable aversive events. This can lead to delayed or prevention of learning in subsequent situations in which escape or avoidance is possible. When a human or animal ‘gives up’, and stops trying due to multiple failed attempts at trying to control a situation. e.g. dog sits politely at all times because the alternate might risk “getting in trouble” by owner. 
  • Learning: the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, practice, or study, or by being taught. The process in which relatively permanent changes in behavior are produced through experience and memories.
  • Lure: Something that motivates or is used to motivate a person or animal to do something.
  • Motivation: A general term referring to the forces regulating behavior that is undertaken because of instinctual drives, needs, desires, and is directed towards a goal. One factor that can influence whether or not a learned behavior will be performed. Animal needs to be motivated in some way to perform a specific behavior – either from others, or from within. e.g. for dogs: petting, praise, attention, toys, games, tug, food playing with other dogs. 
  • Negative punishment: In operant conditioning, the removal of something an animal wants.  e.g. Dog jumps on person to say ‘hello’ – person turns their back and ignores dog.
  • Negative reinforcement: In operant conditioning, the removal of something an animal finds unpleasant, as an immediate result of the desired behavior performed. e.g. Pull up on choke collar until dog sits butt on ground, choke collar released. Pinning dog on back until dog relaxes and “submits.” In both examples it’s the release of the choke chain, or allowing the dog to get up after pinning. 
  • Operant Conditioning: AKA ‘Instrumental Conditioning’, ‘Skinnerian Conditioning’. The fundamental principle of operant conditioning is: behavior is determined by its consequences. A form of learning in which something the animal finds pleasant or unpleasant is presented or removed, thus altering the rate at which the behavior is performed. 
  • Positive Punishment: In operant conditioning, the addition of an aversive stimulus, or something an animal seeks to avoid, that is found within the animals environment, following a behavior, with the intention of decreasing the frequency of that behavior. e.g. dog eliminates on carpet, dog get smacked. Owner pinning dog in order to “take control.” 
  • Positive Reinforcement: In operant conditioning, an event or stimulus provided following a specific behavior with the intention of increasing the frequency of that behavior. A positive reinforcer is something the animal desires or finds pleasant. e.g. dog sits, get treat for sitting, dog continues to sit because it predict treats. 
  • Reinforce: Strengthen or support an existing feeling, idea, or habit. 
  • Reinforcer: Anything that increases the frequency of the behavior it immediately follows. 
  • Reinforcement: The event which increases the frequency of the behavior it follows. 
  • Reward: Anything the dog considers ‘good’- stimulates at least one of the five senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, sound. Anything the dog finds motivating and reinforcing – can be: food, toys, praise, touch, freedom. e.g. belly-rub, rousing game of fetch, comfy bed, something stinky to roll in, kissy-face with family members, liver treat. A return that is obtained upon the successful performance of a task. 
  • Reward-based training program: Using anything an animal finds appealing and ‘rewarding’ to elicit, reinforce, or inhibit behaviors. 
  • Sensitization: Intensifying of an animals response to stimuli that did not originally produce such strong feelings. 
  • Shaping: A method of modifying behavior. The entire process of selectively reinforcing responses in successive steps towards the goal of a desired response. Based on principles of operant conditioning in which an animals behavior is gradually molded to specific desired patterns through the delivery of positive reinforcement at distinct moments. 
  • Stimulus: Anything in the environment that can be perceived by an animal through one of his senses – sight, smell, touch, sound, taste. A thing or event that evokes a specific functional reaction in an organ or tissue. A thing that rouses activity or energy in someone or something. Any event or change in the environment that leads to a bodily or behavioral response by an animal. Plural: stimuli 
  • Threshold: The least amount of stimulus required to elicit a response. The point at which a stimulus becomes perceptible or is of sufficient intensity to elicit a response. 
  • Time-Out: The cessation of stimulus or response from the trainer, for some interval of time. Removal of the situation in which an animal can receive reinforcement; used to suppress incorrect responses. *Note: a time-out for a dog should average only ~20 seconds. 
  • Training: the action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behavior. 

Hopefully this will clear up or answer the question of “What are you talking about?” when you hear these terms from me, another trainer, or some television show….you may also be able to observe some training methods out there and now realize some folks have the terms mixed up themselves, and aren’t practicing what they think they are.

7 Responses

  1. This summary is so helpful. But, I didn’t find the word I’m looking for. It’s the word that describes a dog who’s confused about learning a new command/trick…and so the dog goes through his entire repertoire of tricks in an (fruitless) effort to come up with the right behavior.

    Can you tell me the term for this?

    We love teaching our “old” (11 years) Cockapoo new tricks. He’s so smart and eager to learn!

    Thanks in advance…
    Judith Wolf Mandell

    1. Hi Judith! Thanks so much for stopping by. I appreciate that you said “…eager to learn!” I love to hear when pet parents recognize that our fur, feathered and finned friends love going to school, no matter how old or young.

      As for your question, and the specific term, forgive my ignorance but I’m not familiar with a specific scientific term. I usually refer to the series of behaviors as a “Dog and pony show” throwing out one behavior after another in hopes of discovering one that will gain reinforcement! If you find something else, feel free to post and share!

  2. HI THERE,



    1. Hey Ron! Thanks for stopping by, and for the accolades. Great to hear you’re staying fresh with the latest paw-sitive info! Cheers and woofs to you and your inquisitive canine.

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