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Trainer Terms Explained: Classical Conditioning

Pavlov, does that name ring a bell for you?

As dog guardians, we all want the same thing – a loving pup who listens to our cues and behaves impeccably, whether that’s at home, at a friend’s house, a café, on walks, or in any high-distraction environment. No more sofa surfing or counter cruising.

But how can we reach that level of consistent, reliability with our beloved Fido? The solution lies in classical conditioning, an evidence-based psychological learning theory that’s been pivotal in animal training for decades.

The Origins of Classical Conditioning

While classical conditioning is now widely used across animal training and a variety of other applications, it was discovered accidentally in the 1890s. Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, was studying digestion in dogs when he observed an interesting phenomenon – his test dogs began salivating before any food was presented, simply in response to environmental cues like the lab assistants’ footsteps or the sound of a bell.

It’s said that at first, Pavlov saw this as a frustrating mistake in his experiments. But upon further study, he realised this revealed an entirely new principle of learning – when a neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired with a stimulus that naturally triggers a response, it can eventually trigger that response as well through conditioning.

Pavlov’s findings launched a pioneering study into classical conditioning, cycling through rounds of ringing a bell, then immediately presenting food and measuring his dogs’ saliva production. After many repetitions of this sequence, the dog’s saliva would start flowing with the sound of the bell alone.

What Is Classical Conditioning for Dogs?

Classical conditioning is a learning process where an initially neutral stimulus (like a word, sound, or visual cue) is paired with a different stimulus that produces a reflexive biological response. Through repetition and reinforcement, the neutral stimulus takes on the ability to trigger that same innate response.

For example, most dogs will naturally salivate when they smell food cooking (so do I hehe). By pairing a cue like ringing a bell with presenting food, the bell alone eventually becomes enough to make the dog salivate through classical conditioning. Or in the case of dog training, a cue like “sit” can become a conditioned stimulus that makes the dog anticipate a reward for the desired behaviour.

The 4 Principles of Classical Conditioning for Dogs

While Pavlov’s original experiments focused on physiological responses like salivation, the same principles of classical conditioning can be applied to condition behavioural responses in dogs as well. Here are the four key principles:

1. Unconditioned Response

This is the dog’s innate, biological response to a particular stimulus, like salivating at the smell of food or getting excited at the sight of a critter. It’s unlearned and happens naturally without any training. 

2. Unconditioned Stimulus

The stimulus that automatically triggers the unconditioned response, like the smell of food or the sight of a critter. This could also be something inherently unpleasant that causes an avoidance or fear response.

3. Conditioned Stimulus

The previously neutral stimulus (like a cue word, hand signal, whistle, bell, etc.) that is paired with the unconditioned stimulus enough times to eventually trigger the same conditioned response on its own through conditioning.

4. Conditioned Response

This is the learned response that occurs after the conditioned stimulus has been associated with the unconditioned stimulus through repetition. Like drooling at the ring of a bell after it’s been paired with presenting food. Think about the response a reactive dog might have to hearing dog tags jingling.

Using Classical Conditioning for Positive Training

So how can we harness the power of classical conditioning to shape and reinforce desired behaviours? The key is pairing a cue you want your dog to respond to (the conditioned stimulus) with an outcome they already find innately rewarding (the unconditioned stimulus).

Let’s use the “leave it” cue as an example. Most dogs have a natural desire and attraction for food, toys, etc. (the unconditioned stimulus). By pairing the cue “leave it” with them being allowed to get that item, or another item as a reward for disengaging, the cue itself becomes predictive of earning that reward through conditioning. Anyone who’s been to my classes will have learned the ‘Leave It’ Game but here are the basic steps.

The Training Process:

1. Present the unconditioned stimulus (a treat, toy, etc. your dog shows interest in)

2. Give the neutral cue “leave it”

3. When your dog backs off or ignores the item, reinforce their behaviour by allowing them to get a different high value treat or reward

4. Repeat many cycles of this to strengthen the correlation between the “leave it” cue and your dog’s ability to control themselves from accessing the original item

Through consistent repetition and reinforcement, the meaningless words “leave it” become a powerful conditioned stimulus that triggers your dog’s learned response of impulse control and leaving items alone. They’ve formed an association that following that cue leads to even better rewards.

The same principles let you condition practically any cue like “sit”, “stay”, “come”, and “heel” to have meaning and importance for your dog. You’re taking once neutral words and building an understanding through classical conditioning that your doggo will predict that they will get reinforced if they offer the behaviour.

Why Classical Conditioning Works So Well

Beyond the scientific principles behind how classical conditioning reshapes behaviour, it’s an incredibly effective dog training approach for a few key reasons:

It’s Communication Through Association

While we can’t literally explain to our dogs what words like “sit” or “stay” mean, we can construct those meanings through repetitive conditioning. The cue develops predictive value – once a dog has been classically conditioned, they understand that following a certain cue allows them to earn reinforcement while ignoring it earns them nothing.

It Creates Motivation

By associating cues with concrete outcomes dogs naturally desire like treats or play, we make them motivated to follow those cues without confusion. Motivation is critical for efficient learning – a bored, unmotivated dog won’t retain lessons nearly as well. Enter Concept games-based training (yee haa).

It Mimics Real-World Situations 

One of the biggest challenges in training is closing the gap between your dog’s performance in practice sessions at home (FOR the situations) versus distracting public environments (IN the situation). Classical conditioning bridges that gap by letting you recreate real-world scenarios with temptations on a progressively increasing scale while your dog is still learning.

Building a Reliable Dog Through Conditioning

While classical conditioning forms strong cue associations, you’ll then want to layer in the operant conditioning principles that I wrote about last week. Things like positive reinforcement to reinforce desired behaviours to proof your dog’s skill across different levels of distraction.

Here’s an example training plan for teaching the “Leave It” Game:

Weeks 1-2: Intro to Classical Conditioning

Present your dog’s favourite treat, pair with the cue “leave it”, and reward with a different treat when they disengage. Repeat until the cue alone makes them anticipate something good for ignoring that item.

Weeks 3-4: Adding Criterions

Now that your dog understands that “leave it” predicts a reward is available, raise criteria by only rewarding when they avoid touching, staring at, or getting closer to the original item when given the cue. You’re proofing their response.

Weeks 5-6: Distance, Duration & Distraction

Make your dog “leave it” for longer periods and around increased environmental distractions and temptations like having a person pretend to eat the treat in front of them. Don’t reward until they fully master impulse control.

Weeks 7+: Generalization 

Take your training on the road, including playing the ‘Leave It’ Game with your dog on walks, at the park, while you cook, etc. Continue rewarding “leave its” around real-world temptations while mixing in periodic practice rounds at home.

You’re laying a strong foundation where the “leave it” cue has deep meaning for your dog. They’ve learned through classical conditioning that following that cue leads to good things, while disregarding it never gets them what they want.

So channel your inner Pavlov and start training your Fido using classical conditioning.

Game On! Let’s Play!


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