In dog training we use a lot of technical terms. I try to always use the least technical language as possible with my students because I know they don’t know all of the things I do. Plus, it just sounds pretentious to go off with technical jargon.
With that said, one term we use a lot—A LOT—is Classical Conditioning, and that is one topic I spend a good amount of time explaining to people. It’s important, I think, to have a grasp of the concept as we work.
WHAT IS IT?
In a nutshell Classical Conditioning is learning by association, where one thing reliably predicts another.
Classical Conditioning is also popularly called “Pavlovian Conditioning” because it was first discovered by Russian Scientist, Ivan Pavlov.
During the 1920’s Pavlov was doing experiments with salivation in dogs. During the course of his research he would offer some auditory stimulus—a bell, a metronome, or a buzzer—and then present food to the dogs. Over time he noticed that the dogs would begin salivating upon hearing the sound even before the food was presented. He called this a “conditioned reflex.” The dogs had learned that the sound reliably predicted the appearance of food and reacted as though they’d been presented with food. The sound had acquired a conditioned response.
Pavlov’s research on conditional reflexes has greatly influenced science and psychology.
IN TODAY’S WORLD
Today we understand that many things in our lives and our dogs’ lives are conditioned responses. Here are some examples:
- After receiving multiple speeding tickets over time during your long commute, now the sight of a police car makes you nervous, regardless of whether you’re speeding or not.
- Hearing the text tone on your phone makes your brain release feel good chemicals. It’s a sort of micro-happiness because you enjoy reading texts and the sound indicates there’s one waiting for you.
- Your mother never has anything nice to say, so talking to her is always stressful. When you see her number pop up on your phone, it makes you anxious whether you answer or not.
- Your uncle is one of the best cooks you’ve ever known. Pulling up to his house makes you feel hungry, makes your mouth water, and focuses your attention on what he may be cooking during your visit.
- The Ludovico Technique used in the book and movie A Clockwork Orange is a Classical Conditioning exercise, pairing violence with feelings of nausea. This makes the main character, Alex, nauseous when he wants to commit violence. This is meant as a deterrent for his behavior.
HOW DO WE USE IT WITH DOGS?
In dog training, we use Conditioning to create good emotional and physiological responses to known triggers. We also use it to unwrap bad emotional responses which lead to annoying or even dangerous behaviors. We work to alter their reflexive emotional and physiological responses, either by repeatedly pairing relevant stimuli with something pleasant or valuable, or through careful exposure that gradually desensitizes them.
An example might involve pairing proximity to scary things with cooked chicken. Or, gradually acclimating a dog to that thing via regular exposure at a safe distance. The result is a decrease in the perceived need to behave aggressively or fearfully. Once we’ve altered these emotional responses the related actions change too. Then we see an increase in the likelihood that the dog makes better decisions on its own in similar situations.
Flavors of Conditioning
Classical Conditioning can come in different packages, with different goals and somewhat different strategies:
Counterconditioning: changing the conditioned expectation and thereby changing the conditioned response. Usually we have to use this because your dog already has a conditioned response and it’s not a good one. Counterconditioning works to replace it with something else that’s more productive.
Progressive Desensitization: gradually reducing a conditioned response to the point where it becomes a neutral one. Usually it’s about taking a negative response and just making the dog indifferent about it. We also call this process “neutralizing” or “habituation.”
Differential Classical Conditioning (D/CC): A favorite of Behavioralist/Veterinarian/Trainer Dr. Ian Dunbar. This is conditioning that works on three levels. It is similar to Operant Counterconditioning (OCC) but is less dependent on actions than OCC is. When we’re classically conditioning, whether or not you give your dog positive feedback depends on one thing and one thing only: is the stimulus present or absent? In D/CC we have three levels:
- If the stimulus is not present, no praise.
- If the stimulus is present: praise (and/or feed) your dog, reassure.
- If the stimulus is present and your dog is good: MEGA-PRAISE (and/or better food)
IT’S ALWAYS HAPPENING
An important aspect to understand is that the process of Conditioning is happening no matter what your dog is doing. Take , for example, this scenario:
- We’re trying to Countercondition a reactive dog,
- The dog is very food motivated so we’re going to use food for conditioning.
- The dog is barking in the presence of a trigger
- So, the owner refrains from giving the dog food because they don’t want to “reinforce the barking.”
Well, this isn’t how conditioning works. It’s happening all of the time regardless of what actions the dog is doing. If the trigger appears, and we start feeding the dog then the trigger begins to predict food whether or not the dog barks.
Now, if the dog barked, and the owner said “Yes!” and gave them a reward, then absolutely that would be reinforcing the barking. That’s Operant Conditioning. However, if we largely ignore the barking for now and focus on feeding the dog when the trigger appears, we are doing the work of Classical Conditioning. We’ll be creating a good Conditioned Emotional Response which will also start changing the dog’s motivation to bark. You see how this works?
Now you should also see why it is a fallacy that we can reinforce fear or bad behavior with this strategy. People say “Oh don’t reassure your dog” or “Don’t pet them when they’re being reactive!” That’s pure nonsense. That’s a misunderstanding of how the mechanics of conditioning work.
Look at it this way: if you’re deathly afraid of spiders, and a spider is sitting in front of you, does the presence of a loved telling you it’s going to be all right somehow make you MORE afraid of the spider? Of course not. Understand that Classical Conditioning is happening all of the time regardless of what your dog is doing; don’t restrain yourself.
WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?
- Separation Anxiety and Isolation Distress
- Habituation to hardware like head halters or muzzles
- Habituation or conditioning to new environments
- Teaching a dog the meanings of words (this is how a dog learns that “Sit” means to sit)
- Avoidant behaviors (like teaching a dog to avoid snakes)
While Classical Conditioning is a powerful tool, it’s not always the best one for everything. For example, pretty much all obedience behaviors are taught through Operant Conditioning, a cause/effect relationship. We teach Sit, Stay, Come, and walk nicely on a leash through rewards and consequences in structured formats.
However, although in general terms we make a distinction between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning, in reality the two are inseparably intertwined. Understanding this relationship is at the core of strong and productive training. We are always Classically Conditioning our dogs when we work with them. Even though behaviors are taught using Operant Conditioning, HOW your dog feels about working with you is a Classically Conditioning relationship and will affect how they perform.
Let’s interview two dogs here.
- Dog One
- Q: How do you like training?
- A: Oh it’s awesome! I love it. Man, I get some many treats I feel like I’m going to barf. I get to play with toys, and learn fun stuff.
- Q: Ok, how do you like your owner?
- A: I love her. L-O-V-E H-E-R! She gives me presents and compliments and massages. I’d do anything for her.
- Dog Two
- Q: How do you like training?
- A: It’s ok. I guess. I get shouted at a lot. Get pulled around. Wears me out.
- Q: Ok, how do you like your owner?
- A: He’s all right, most of the time. Out here, though…I don’t really get why I’m here. He just gets frustrated. I’d rather go do something else.
This is the Classical fallout from training. Dog #1 is going to do things quickly and stylishly, and enjoy working with her owner. Dog #2 is going to seem distracted, won’t listen, and will have lukewarm responses to requests. Dog #1 has a bombproof off-leash recall. Dog #2 can’t be trusted in the yard unsupervised. Both have practiced the same behaviors, but their responses to training are different.
THE EFFECTS OF STRESS
Stress has a few little tricks up its sleeve that speeds up acquisition. Lessons learned under stress are committed to long-term memory faster, and with fewer trials. This is mainly due to the kinds of chemicals the brain releases during stress, specifically in this instance, Cortisol. When Cortisol is combined with Adrenaline you get “flashbulb” memories. For example, touching a hot stove is a flashbulb memory that usually only takes one trial to commit to memory.
This makes dog training problematic. Fear is a powerful motivator, and Counterconditioning emotional responses to bad experiences is difficult and time consuming. Phobias are very sticky little devils to exorcise. It takes time and dedicated engineering of the situation to unravel them. Even just desensitization—reaching a neutral response—can be a huge task. And since fear is the primary motivator behind aggression, you may have other problems to deal with as well.
Additionally, any training session where stress is allowed to accumulate unchecked can result in the wrong lessons being learned. This is how we get superstitious associations. Aversive experiences such harsh corrections lend themselves well to these problems.
A classic example is the dog who got a powerful correction for pulling, but that also happened to be focused on a child a few feet away. That stressful experience could imprint in the brain as “children = pain.” Now you’ve got a child-aggression problem started with just one trial. For this reason aversive tools, if used, should always be done sensitively and with several prerequisites in place to reduce the likelihood of problems like this.
Likewise, other sources of stress need to be monitored and controlled so they don’t interfere. As stress chemicals enter the body they impede learning, they inhibit memory retention for anything but the bad stuff. A stressed out dog isn’t going to learn much. And in the case of aversive tools, stress chemicals act as analgesics—pain killers—so aversives are less effective as the session goes on anyways. Less experienced trainers usually apply more pressure and just fuel the fire.
- Control stressful stimuli
- Practice LIMA in training (Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive)
- Monitor frustration
- Take a break!
Understanding how Classical Conditioning works is immensely useful in training. Not only that, it’s an important factor in all of our interactions, with our dogs and other people! Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning are two complimentary forces at work in the world. Once you learn how to command those forces you can accomplish a lot!
Keep learning, and keep practicing!