Using the Show Lucky Dog to Teach Elements of Operant Conditioning

17 Oct 2016 7:41 PM | Anonymous

Using the Show Lucky Dog to Teach
Elements of Operant Conditioning


Debra K. Stein, Ph.D.
Widener University

Classical and operant conditioning techniques and their associated principles are often hard for undergraduate introductory psychology students to understand. Visions of salivating dogs and bar-pressing rats can often repel students and prevent them from gaining basic knowledge of how such procedures operate on all of us across varied situations throughout the day. The Emmy Award winning television show Lucky Dog, hosted by Brandon McMillan, (CBS Dream Team, 2016) offers excellent examples of the elements of operant conditioning within a humanistic framework. In 22 minutes, McMillan takes the viewer on a sensitive, but somewhat precarious journey, as he trains abandoned canines (that would otherwise be scheduled to be euthanized) for adoption into loving homes. Although the stories are very engaging and sometimes bring a tear to the eye, the focus on simple animal training techniques used in applied settings is the hallmark of the program, and underscores the program’s usefulness for the identification and analysis of operant conditioning components.

            As psychology instructors, we know it is important that our students understand the nature and execution of operant conditioning methods, because these methods are primary in facilitating behavior change (McLeod, 2015).  However, students often report the technical language and related principles are hard to comprehend. Although they understand how behavior can increase and decrease in frequency as the result of simple reinforcers and punishers, when you add concepts of shaping, extinction, discriminative cues and reinforcement schedules,  students become overwhelmed and tune out.  After all, once the basic components have been defined, and the rat has gone through his paces, what else is there to learn? Actually, as we know from Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain (Huitt, 2011), knowledge comprehension is just the start of the learning process. Knowledge application in the service of problem solving, followed by analysis and evaluation of problem situations, form the pinnacle of critical thinking. Thus, having students analyze applications of operant conditioning within an appropriate situation, complete with contextual cues, shaping procedures, and varied consequences is essential for students’ complete understanding of the paradigm and its application within personal settings. My evaluation of 120 Lucky Dog assignments (Stein, 2016)  has shown that critical  thinking scores for undergraduate students as measured by the Widener University Critical Thinking Rubric are improved by these assignments becoming quite good, averaging a 3.4 on a 4 point scale across television episodes (3 is competent; 4 is expert). As per the rubric, students clearly identify goals of each training situation, precisely analyze and evaluate training examples, and accurately interpret evidence to support their evaluations. Thus, analyzing episodes of Lucky Dog does enhance higher order thinking skills.

            So what specific components of operant conditioning do students identify and evaluate? In my introductory psychology courses, I have students view 2 specific episodes of Lucky Dog. Their job, for this assignment, is to identify and analyze at least 5 examples of operant conditioning per episode.  For each example, students are asked to note 5 conditioning components:

  1. the target behavior;
  2. the consequence (noting whether it is a reinforcer or punisher, as well as the type of reinforcer/punisher); 
  3. the direction of change in behavior (increase or decrease);
  4. any/all discriminative cues used to signal the target behavior; and
  5. any procedure that is used to gradually shape the behavior into the desired form.

Many of the examples are simple, and students quickly establish a rhythm and breeze right through. But some situations require additional thought as the students attempt to isolate cues and consequences. In one episode, for example, students had to identify the elements of operant conditioning including the discriminative cues for “shadow walking.”  In this example, the cue was neither a verbal one (e.g., a command) nor a physical hand gesture, but the actual spontaneous/unpredictable pause of the trainer’s body while walking along a path. The students also had to identify the shaping procedure used (tug on leash) and the consequence/reinforcer (“Good dog!”) when the dog appropriately paused. Students are often apprehensive starting the assignment, but even when they go from the first episode to the second (usually a more difficult episode), they do well. The episodes that I have used most recently include the training of “Kobe” and “Lily” both of which can be accessed on Youtube ( However, each new season of Lucky Dog provides highly inviting stories to analyze.

            It’s important to note that McMillan (Canine Minded, 2016) not only trains the dogs on his seven basic commands: Sit, Stay, Down, Come, Off, Heel and No, but investigates the environment that each dog will inhabit so that the transition into their new home is a success. Thus he highlights the importance of not just behavior learning, but behavior adaptation within a particular environmental context.  According to Bouton, Todd, & Leon (2014) the learning context can have strong control over operant responding. Their research findings suggest context change can disrupt the performance of free operant responses, even after the best of training paradigms. The fact that McMillan carefully examines the environment of the future dog owner and interviews the family members about their needs adds another dimension to the undergraduate students’ understanding of operant behaviors and what influences the success or failure of transfer of training. This careful scrutiny of the future home environment generates a discussion of what additional factors prompt the effectiveness of operant conditioning, in addition to what factors enable the successful match between dog and owner. 

            Finally, not all dogs have the same temperament, so a canine that would be a good match for an elderly couple would not necessarily be appropriate for a young boy or an adolescent with a physical handicap. We know differing temperaments exist, and Brian Hare (2016) in his research on dog cognition has made it very clear that these temperament differences—part of the natural nature of the organismare important considerations in  dictating how a learning situation will progress. Thus, the notation of differences in temperament offers a valuable avenue for discussion of how learning situations in humans can be different as well. Entering into a discussion of temperament can further evolve into a discussion of individual differences in reinforcement preferences or instinctive drift. This discussion, again, facilitates an important addition to the students’ understanding of the operant conditioning paradigm.  In fact, Hare (2016) believes that “The study of the animal mind is central to any scientific endeavor seeking to identify human uniqueness” (p. 1). Thus, although essential elements of operant conditioning generalize across many venues, one must always consider what the animal or human organism brings to the mix.

            Although Lucky Dog is a family show aimed at entertaining viewers, it is also part of the CBS Dream Team Saturday morning line up of programs which have an educational focus (CBS Dream Team, 2016). The mix of information and storytelling within the format of these shows engages the audience thus, increasing the viewer’s attention to the material under review.  Since attention is the first step in all learning (Matlin, 2013), students watching Lucky Dog notice details and form hypotheses about conditioning elements that they might not have gleaned from a simple classroom lecture. In fact, Lewis (2015) speculates in her comparison of the effectiveness of operant conditioning training when using Sniffy the Virtual Rat vs. humans learning target words, “if students have  a sense of empathy and familiarity with the subjects under study, then they are more likely to find the process interesting and  as a result, less difficult to complete” (p. 187). She goes on to suggest that instructors further explore the availability of easy and cost-effective animal alternatives for use in teaching operant conditioning. I submit that the Lucky Dog assignment, as described above, does just that. Furthermore, in completing this Lucky Dog assignment, students gain a new, broader, more practical appreciation for the complex psychological laws that govern behavioral acquisition through operant conditioning. By simply viewing a 22 minute program, psychology students can gain a long-term understanding of one of the most important learning methods identified by psychologists thus far.


Bouton, M. E., Todd, T. E., & Leon, S. P.  (2014). Contextual control of discriminated operant behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 40, 92-105.

CBS DreamTeam. (2016). CBS Dream Team…It’s epic:  Six shows. Retrieved  April 22, 2016 from  

Hare, B.  (2016, January). The Trojan dog: How the animal mind turns psychological broccoli into ice cream for everyone. Session presented at the 38th National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, St. Petersburg, Florida.

Huitt, W. (2011). Bloom et al.'s taxonomy of the cognitive domain. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved April 22, 2016 from [pdf].

Lewis, J. L. (2015, June). A comparison between two different activities for teaching learning principles: Virtual animal labs versus human demonstrations. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(2), 182-188.

Matlin, M.W. (2013). Cognition. (8th ed.). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

McLeod, S. A. (2015). Skinner - Operant conditioning. Retrieved April 22, 2016 from

McMillan, B. (2016). Dog Training: The Seven Common Commands System, Canine Minded. Retrieved April 22, 2016 from

Stein, D.K.  (2016, January).  A critical evaluation of the use of operant conditioning in the show Lucky Dog. Paper presented at the 38th National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology. St. Petersburg, Florida.

Debra K. Stein is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and an Adjunct Professor of Education at Widener University in Chester Pennsylvania. Debra also acts as a consultant for New Jersey’s Educational Information and Resource Center.  Debra has taught a wide range of Psychology courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels although her concentration is in courses within Life-Span Developmental Psychology and Memory & Cognition. Her research interests focus on the use of rubrics in the evaluation of critical and reflective thought, as well as public understanding of moral injury, developmental aspects of guilt, and the value of self-forgiveness. Debra can be reached at


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