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Classical Conditioning for Dogs

Classical conditioning is an association between two stimuli. Of these two stimuli, one is neutral and in the beginning has no meaning. The other stimulus is one that does already have meaning for the dog (or human). The stimulus can be pleasant, or it can be unpleasant.

The two main events that humans or dogs don't need to learn to react to without training are food and pain. Almost everything else is a learned association.

Let's go back (just for a minute) to Pavlov and the metronome and the dog and the saliva. When Pavlov first started pairing the sound of the metronome just before food was presented, the dogs did not drool. However, over time, with consistent pairing (metronome and then food), the dogs began to salivate at the sound of the metronome. As far as their automatic reactions were concerned, the metronome meant food.

Why Is Classical Conditioning Used?

Classical conditioning is used for two reasons:

  • To create an association between a stimulus that would not normally have any meaning along with a stimulus that would have meaning
  • To train automatic responses (e.g., drooling, blinking, or even emotions can be considered automatic responses)

Of course, we don't really need to teach our dogs to blink or drool, but the emotion part is important to us. The recess bell has no meaning until it's paired with playtime; the word “Sit” has no meaning unless paired with sitting; and the smoke alarm has no meaning until you see the fire.

Let's say you hear a song you've never heard before, playing on the radio at the dentist's office while you're getting a particularly painful root canal. The next time you hear that song, you may switch radio stations; in fact, you may never listen to that radio station again. Next you hear a different song when you meet “your true love.” Whenever you hear this song, loving, misty feelings come over you.

Your dog meets a person who gives him lots of yummy treats. The next time he meets that person, he'll be happy to see her (and probably salivate!). Associations, especially first ones, are vitally important to how a dog views his world. You can easily create a happy, well-adjusted dog or a fearful, aggressive dog by the associations you allow him to have.

Canine Caveats

Beware of “negative” associative learning. Your dog runs away and comes back an hour later. You punish him for running away—only, he understands it as punishment for returning. The next time you say “Come,” he will stay away because that word was paired with unpleasant results.

Hobnobbing with the Wrong Crowd: Bad Associations

Setting up a dog to be fearful or aggressive is easy to do. Here's how: make sure all her associations are bad ones. For example, let your dog meet someone who will knee her in the chest or yell if she jumps. The next time she meets that person, your dog won't be happy to see him or her. Do this enough times and your dog will be fearful of people.

Here are some other ways to set up bad associations: introduce your young puppy to an older dog who isn't good around puppies, and watch your dog grow fearful or aggressive toward strange dogs. Yell at your dog for myriad “bad” behaviors and she'll learn to either ignore you or be afraid of you. Call your dog to come and then punish her for something she did an hour ago, and the word “Come” will now take on a negative connotation. Hit your dog for growling at a child and watch your dog learn to hate children (and probably progress from growling to biting). Punish your dog for making a mistake during training and she will then associate training with pain, which certainly does nothing to help her love learning.

Keeping Those Good Associations Happenin'

Pooch Pointers

Yes, even the environment can be punishing. Inanimate objects can be dangerous! Lamps can fall, baby gates can get stuck on doggies' necks, doors can slam in faces, and paws can get stuck in crate doors. Honk-ing horns and wailing sirens can send many a dog under the table in fear.

So what can you do? Make sure the associations are good ones! Have your puppy play with friendly dogs and meet nice, dog-friendly people. Use positive reinforcement as your training philosophy. Get rid of punishments from people, dogs, and (as much as possible) the environment.

Whenever you run across something potentially scary that you want your dog not to be neurotic about, just add some positive stimuli and it will turn out all right. Let's say your dog is afraid of other dogs barking. The next time you hear a dog barking, start feeding the heck out of your dog, before he becomes afraid. If your dog is afraid of people approaching, pair food with a person approaching.

Use associations properly and just be cognizant that Pavlov is always sitting on your shoulder—24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Become Ronald McDonald, Bozo the Clown, and Howdy Doody all rolled up in one. It's a jungle out there—don't become one of the “bad guys.”

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Positive Dog Training é 2005 by Pamela Dennison. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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