Operant Conditioning Vs Fixed Action Patterns

Skinner’s construct of instrumental learning is contrasted with what Nobel Prize winning biologist Konrad Lorenz termed “fixed action patterns,” or reflexive, impulsive, or instinctive behaviors. These behaviors were said by Skinner and others to exist outside the parameters of operant conditioning but were considered essential to a comprehensive analysis of behavior.

In dog training, the use of the prey drive, particularly in training working dogs, detection dogs, etc., the stimulation of these fixed action patterns, relative to the dog’s predatory instincts, are the key to producing very difficult yet consistent behaviors, and in most cases, do not involve operant, classical, or any other kind of conditioning. While evolutionary processes shaped these fix action patterns, the patterns themselves remained stable long enough to be shaped by the long time span necessary for evolution because of their survival function (i.e., operant conditioning).

According to the laws of operant conditioning, any behavior that is consistently rewarded, every single time, will extinguish at a faster rate while intermittently reinforcing behavior leads to more stable rates of behavior that are relatively more resistant to extinction. Thus, in detection dogs, any correct behavior of indicating a “find,” must always be rewarded with a tug toy or a ball throw early on for initial acquisition of the behavior. Thereafter, fading procedures, in which the rate of reinforcement is “thinned” (not every response is reinforced)are introduced, switching the dog to an intermittent schedule of reinforcement, which is more resistant to instances of non-reinforcement.

Nevertheless, some trainers are now using the prey drive to train pet dogs and find that they get far better results in the dogs’ responses to training than when they only use the principles of operant conditioning which, according to Skinner and his students Keller and Marian Breland (who invented clicker training), break down when strong instincts are at play.