When we are training our dogs, we generally use a process called operant conditioning. This is when the dog’s behavior determines the consequence. For example, the dog sits when you ask and you give him a treat. The dog sitting made the treat happen. But there is another type of learning that is often underutilized in training, but it can be one of the most powerful tools that we have: classical conditioning.
What is classical conditioning?
Classical conditioning is also called associative learning, Pavlovian conditioning, and respondent conditioning. But by any name, quite simply, it is learning by association. Classical conditioning happens everywhere, all the time, with or without our help.
One of the most obvious examples of classical conditioning is the dog that goes crazy every time he hears the jingle of keys. A set of keys, by itself, has no special meaning for dogs. But when those keys are linked with walks, they can trigger as much excitement as the walk itself.
While classical conditioning occurs naturally, we can also consciously use it as part of training and socialization. Classical conditioning is one of the most powerful training tools available.
Classical conditioning does not focus on what the dog does or how he behaves. Instead, classical conditioning focuses on how the dog “feels.” For example, if my dog is nervous about trucks rumbling by while I wait at the crosswalk for a light to turn green, I might use classical conditioning to help my dog feel more comfortable. Rather than worrying about whether my dog is sitting at the curb, I will simply treat each time a truck goes by. Assuming the timing is done well and the dog is under threshold (where he notices the trucks but isn’t overly scared), the trucks will become associated with the treats and my dog may become less nervous about the noisy street corner. Classical conditioning is not used to train a dog to consciously act or behave a certain way, but rather conditions them to unconsciously react a certain way. Because a dog’s emotional reactions often drive his behavior, the power of classical conditioning comes from its ability to help shift those emotional reactions.
Classical Conditioning’s Role in Training
Classical conditioning has several direct applications in training, including:
- Conditioning reward markers and other training tools
- Socializing puppies and dogs
- Overcoming fears
- Decreasing aggression
- Reducing overexcitement or over-arousal
Conditioning Reward Markers and Other Training Tools
In clicker training, classical conditioning is used to “charge” up the clicker. The clicker, at first, has no special meaning to the dog. But as soon as the clicker is repeatedly paired with great treats, it becomes a powerful tool in training. The “charged” clicker elicits the same emotional response in the dog as the treat itself.
Classical conditioning can also be used to help dogs learn to accept head halters, muzzles, and crates. Take head halters as an example. Many dogs will, without conditioning, resist or even actively dislike halters. But through associating pleasant things with the halter, most dogs can actually learn to love it. At first, you might give your dog treats when you take out the halter. Soon, you may give treats for any interaction. Once the dog is wearing the halter, you can reinforce the conditioning by always having the halter signal the start of fun activities–walks, ball play, training, or other adventures.
Socializing Dogs to New People, Places and Things
Jean Donaldson, in a behavior and counseling course at the San Francisco SPCA, called the use of classical conditioning in conjunction with early socialization “a puppy insurance policy.” Each time you pair children with treats, for example, you are paying into an insurance policy that will protect you and your dog from behavior problems around children later in life. The more you put into the insurance policy, the bigger your protection!
Here’s how it works: By introducing a puppy or young dog to kids of all different ages, he will be more likely to accept kids. When you provide classical conditioning through feeding treats in the presence of children, the dog will not only learn to accept kids, but he will also learn that when he is around kids, good things happen.
If you incorporate classical conditioning in all of your socialization efforts, you are more likely to have a dog that not only likes the things he’s already encountered, but may also look forward to new experiences.
We can also use classical conditioning to help dogs learn to accept and enjoy handling for grooming and veterinary visits, noisy things such as vacuums and blow dryers, preventing food guarding, and more.
Classical conditioning is a good tool for working with most types of fears, including fear of people, noises, and new places. When using classical conditioning to overcome fears, you are not only helping the dog to learn to “like” something, but you are also helping to undo their previous negative association—this is called counterconditioning.
One of the great advantages of working with classical counterconditioning to overcome fears is that you don’t have to know why the dog is afraid. You just need to figure out what he is afraid of, and then condition the dog to “like” that thing. For example, a dog that is afraid of umbrellas may be afraid because he hasn’t seen many umbrellas, because an umbrella bopped him on the head when he was a pup, or maybe because a person carrying an umbrella looks like a big, bad monster. You don’t need to know in order to help your dog overcome his fear of umbrellas. (See below for a step-by-step process of using classical conditioning to work through fears.)
Fear and aggression are usually considered flip sides of the same problem. Dogs that respond to stressful situations with “flight” are considered fearful. Dogs that respond to stressful situations with “fight” are considered aggressive. But the underlying stress reaction is similar and the goal of aggression is to make person, dog, or thing go away.
With classical counterconditioning, we can shift a dog’s emotional response so that he no longer feels the need to aggress. For example, a dog who is dog reactive, may be fearful or he may be guarding his treats, ball, or person. If he is guarding his treats for example, classical counterconditioning helps the dog learn that the other dog actually triggers the start of the treats. If the other dog makes the treats happen (rather than being a threat to those treats) than the dog will like it when the other dog appears (Yay, there’s a dog, now I get my treats!) and the aggressive response will subside.
I don’t know for sure why classical conditioning works to reduce overexcitement in dogs, but it does appear to help. One generally accepted theory is that when dogs are overexcited, no matter if the cause of the excitement is fear, predation, or fun, the brain chemistry and the hormonal shifts are similar. I have seen plenty of evidence that when we use classical counterconditioning with squirrels and cats, we will often see the dogs calm down significantly around these animals.
Putting Classical Conditioning to Work
Here are the steps to using classical conditioning with your dog. For this description, I will refer to the object, animal, or person you want your dog to like as the “trigger.”
- Identify the trigger–that is, know what it is that you would like to “condition.” For example, a dog that exhibits fear of people may be afraid of all people, or just some people. If he is afraid of some people, figure out which people cause his fear–it could be tall people, people with hats, children, men, women, or people with umbrellas.
- Pick something special to use for your conditioning “treat.” It can be anything the dog is crazy about–the more he likes it, the better. Food is a great choice. But if your dog loves balls, other toys, or games, they can work too. Ideally it will be something that is extra special to your dog (like chicken chunks or roast beef!).
- Each time the dog notices the trigger, he gets the special treat. Here is the order:
- The trigger appears first; then you give your dog the special treats.
- The trigger goes away, the treats stop.
- Give lots of the special treats in the presence of the trigger—figure one per second. You want the dog to be completely saturated with good things!
- Your dog should get this extra special treat every time he is exposed to the trigger. If he only gets it some of the time, then the trigger will not be the predictor of the good stuff and the technique will not work.
- Ideally, you will work with your dog under threshold—that is when your dog notices the trigger without having a strong reaction. For example, if you are working on a fear of people and your dog is OK with strange people at twenty feet, but shows fear at fifteen feet, start your classical conditioning work with the people at a distance of twenty feet.
- Take your time with this process. Watch how your dog responds and use your dog’s reaction as the criteria for upping the ante. Look for your dog to actively notice the trigger, and then happily turn to you for the special treats. Depending on the level of fear, it may take a few repetitions or it may take many, many repetitions before your dog is responding positively when noticing the trigger.
- Don’t worry about how your dog is “behaving” when you give the treats. With classical conditioning your dog is getting treats or play for the presence of the trigger, not for his or her behavior. It doesn’t matter if your dog is sitting, standing, or spinning in circles. Even if your dog is acting out, keep up the treats, but do move your dog away so that he can be under threshold.
- Be patient! When you are using classical conditioning to condition something neutral to the dog (like a clicker), the association happens very fast. But if you are using classical conditioning with something the dog already has a bad association with, it may take many repetitions before you see progress.
Please note: I recommend that you enlist the help of a knowledgeable behavior specialist to guide you through the classical conditioning process.
The Results Are Magical
With classical conditioning, we can actively help our dogs learn to love new things. We can assist our dogs in becoming calmer and more confident. We can help our dogs overcome fears and aggression. And, when a dog can learn to relax or even enjoy things that used to be scary, the quality of life for both of you will dramatically improve. The results really can be magical!