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  • Writer's pictureSarah Dykes

Classical Conditioning 101

I’ve often had people comment that I’m just distracting dogs with treats at class – really, is that all they think is going on? It may look simple, but here’s the science behind it (and I’m not actually distracting the dogs with treats, I’m associating the treats with a specific stimulus).

Respondent conditioning, also referred to as classical or Pavlovian conditioning, is based on the association of an event with a resulting behavior. This phenomenon was presented by Ivan Pavlov, who discovered that dogs salivate when meat powder is placed in their mouths. He then sounded a metronome, a neutral stimulus, before placing the meat powder in the dogs’ mouths. After pairing the sound and the meat powder together numerous times, he found that the dogs would salivate when only the sound was presented (Burch & Bailey, 1999, p. 83). This discovery has provided a type of conditioning useful in effectively teaching and changing behaviors in many organisms, including dogs. However, there are many variables that affect the rate of conditioning as well as its maintenance.

Strangers are followed by cheese!

The Components of Respondent Conditioning

Pavlov concluded there were two kinds of reflexes: unconditional, or inborn, reflexes and conditional reflexes, which occur via experience. An unconditional stimulus (US) and its resulting behavior, the unconditional response (UR), compose the unconditional reflex. In our familiar example, the US is meat powder and the UR is salivation. A conditional reflex is acquired through experience and consists of a conditional stimulus (CS) and a conditional response (CR). Respondent conditioning occurs when a CS and US are paired as one trial (Chance, 2006, p. 70-72). Again, the CS is the sound of the metronome and the CR is salivation.

There are a few rules to classical conditioning – while using this training method, the ratio of the conditioned stimulus to the unconditional stimulus has to be 1:1. This creates a very predictable situation – the appearance of a dog also means the appearance of a tube of peanut butter, without fail. The appearance of the unconditional stimulus has to occur regardless of the dog’s behavior; even in those “oh shit” moments. Also, the unconditional stimulus must follow the conditioned stimulus; the dog must notice the other dog before the peanut butter tube appears – otherwise, we may create a fearful response to the tube of peanut butter! Classical conditioning does work both ways. However, we don’t want to be too slow with that unconditional stimulus – the dog has the potential to become too stressed to notice the peanut butter goodness (we also want to take care that we are not flooding the dog with the conditional stimulus – that needs to stay a safe distance away until we see a shift in body language, and then it may move closer).

Moxie learns that approaching people gets her salmon skins (her favourite).

But, Am I Rewarding Undesirable Behavior?

Classical conditioning can be a tough one to wrap our heads around, and it is often counter-intuitive to our human logic, which often favours operant conditioning.

Let’s say we’re using classical conditioning to teach George the dog that the vacuum cleaner is okay. One day, we’re a little too enthusiastic with both our training and cleaning, and we turn on the vacuum too close to George and George growls and shows his teeth. Yet, liver treats still rain down from our pocket. Did we just reward George for growling and showing his teeth to the vacuum? Technically, yes! Operant and classical conditioning are always simultaneously occurring, but classical conditioning is the trump card. The association of the vacuum to the liver treats will outweigh the reward for growling. This example also shows us that maybe we pushed training a bit too quickly for George – the vacuum needs to be moved away from him, pushed around, and possibly turned on, depending on his previous experiences. The growl and teeth show doesn’t mean that all is lost, as the appearance of the vacuum was still paired with the liver treats – George just told us to slow down!

This just scratches the surface of classical conditioning and learning theory. For more information, I recommend:

How Dogs Learn by Mary Burch and John Bailey

Learning and Behavior by Paul Chance

Does The Name Pavlov Ring A Bell? Kathy Sdao seminar (DVD)

Cujo Meet Pavlov! Classical Conditioning for On Leash Aggression Seminar – Kathy Sdao (DVD)

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