The story of Ivan Pavlov and the salivating dogs is legendary, and a great example of classical conditioning. While studying digestion in dogs, Pavlov noticed an interesting occurrence – his canine subjects would begin to salivate whenever an assistant entered the room. Why? Because the dogs had come to associate the assistants with the presentation of food. This is called a learned or conditioned response, whereas an unconditioned response or reflex would be a dog salivating to the actual presentation of food.
Classical conditioning is widely used in the realm of dog training and behavior modification. For instance, if your dog has a fear of elevators, you might pair the elevator rides with your dog's favorite treats or toy. Your dog would eventually begin to look forward to riding the elevator because Elevator Ride = Favorite Treat!
The use of clickers and verbal markers is another good example of classical conditioning. The sound of the clicker doesn't inherently have any value to your dog, but if you regularly pair it with a follow-up treat, then your dog will learn that the sound of the clicker = reward, and therefore this would lead to reinforcement and increase of the behavior you're clicking.
Using classical conditioning can be a great way to train dogs if you use it deliberately. Towards the beginning of my dog training apprenticeship, my mentor Marie Selarque gave me the assignment of conditioning an emotional response in my dog using a neutral object (i.e. something that didn't already have a good or bad association for my dog). I chose a baseball cap. Several times a day for about a week, I paired the sight of my baseball cap with everything that Luka loved, such as chicken treats and walks. By the end of the week, Luka was wagging his tail and perking up his ears whenever I presented the baseball cap to him! This was a fun exercise that showed me the power of classical conditioning - something that affects the learning process in all animals, including humans.
Since then I've learned that we can also inadvertently condition a negative emotional response. I'll tell you something funny that happened to me recently (well, it's funny in retrospect).
Target Training With Luka
Over the last few weeks, I've been training my dog Luka to target (or touch) things with his nose. I started by having him touch the palm of my hand, and then the end of a chopstick. Currently he's learning to touch the kitchen cabinet door so that he can eventually close the door with his nose.
My dog Luka is almost 9 years old and is not the sharpest tool in the shed, so to speak. In order to teach this "trick" it was essential for me to give him feedback when he did the correct thing. Although I could have used a clicker to mark those moments, I decided to use the verbal reward marker of Good! because my hands were busy handling the cabinet door and feeding treats.
Twice a day for the last week, I have been working on this training with Luka. A typical session went something like, (Touch) Good! (Pause) (Touch) Good! (Touch) Good! (Pause) (Touch) Good! (Pause) (Touch) Good! (Big Push) Very Good!!!
A few days ago, I had just finished a session with Luka, only to find that my husband was in a very cranky mood. I couldn't think of anything I had done to upset him, and when I asked him what was wrong, he wasn't really sure. So I decided to leave him alone in order to avoid his wrath.
Several minutes later, he came to me apologetically and said, "I realized why I was so upset. The other day when you were training Luka, I was on the phone with a client, and I could hear you saying Good! Good! Good! in the background, and I was really annoyed because I had a hard time concentrating on the phone call. So when I heard you training Luka today, I guess it evoked that same feeling of annoyance in me!"
Now, if that isn't a brilliant example of classical conditioning, I don't know what is! Soon after this incident, I switched from using the Good! verbal marker to using a clicker. I thought it would be easier than changing my husband's conditioned negative emotional response to a positive one. In puppy classes, we sometimes encounter dogs that run away when the owner says "Come!" because the owner has inadvertently taught the dog that Come = End of Play, Time for Bath, and other unpleasant things. In these cases, we might suggest that the owner use a whole new word, like Here instead of trying to re-condition the word Come.
I encourage you to use classical conditioning to your advantage and to your puppy's advantage. It can play a key part in socializing your young puppy to everything in her environment, including riding cars, taking baths, clipping nails, walking past barking dogs, etc. If you're a training geek like me, you might also enjoy analyzing your own emotional reactions to various people, objects and locations in your life. You may be surprised what you discover.