The Power Of Classical Conditioning

The Power Of Classical Conditioning

Over the years, one of the things I have heard over and over again from people use utilize aversive training tools like shock collars and prong collars is that their dogs love these devices and they get excited when they are presented.  They justify the use of tools that, in the most experienced hands, cause discomfort/annoyance and, in the hands of typical uneducated users, cause pain, because the dog gets excited when the tool is brought out.  The only reason the dogs are getting excited about the tools is because those tools predict a fun experience, not because they like the tool itself.  The shock collar predicts going hunting, hiking, or trips to off-leash areas and the prong collar predicts getting out of the house for a walk, the attention that happens during a training session, or a trip to the park.  Their excitement is not because they like the tool, but because they like what the tool is conditioned to predict.

Just chill'n with my head gear :)
Just chill’n with my head gear 🙂

When I pull out Shayne’s muzzle, she starts jumping up and down, wiggling her whole body, she may even vocalize excitedly, and enthusiastically shoves her face into the muzzle. Although I often say she “loves her muzzle,” I am under no false impressions that she actually loves the muzzle–she loves the food, fun, and games that the muzzle predicts.

The excitement around the shock collar, prong collar, and muzzle were created through classical conditioning or counter conditioning (depending on the tool and how it was introduced).  It’s not a matter of a dog finding the tools enjoyable, they just find the experiences that the tool predicts as being either enjoyable or, in some cases, they find the tool itself unpleasureable but the fun of what the tool predicts outweighs that discomfort.  Counter conditioning and classical conditioning are incredibly important in the world of dog training and it’s important to know about them and how to use them.

Classical conditioning is the process of pairing a neutral stimulus with a conditioned stimulus.  So we can pair a click sound with food to create a positive association with the click noise.  Prior to pairing with treats, the click has no meaning and should be a neutral, it causes no real reaction by the dog (besides just being a strange noise in the environment).  While the click is a stimulus paired with a positive stimulus, the opposite can also be true, we can pair a neutral stimulus with something negative to create an aversive relationship.  There is a famous (infamous) study, published in 1920, of Little Albert who was conditioned to have a negative response to small fluffy critters by pairing a terrifying noise with his reaching towards a lab rat. After a few sessions of pairing the noise with reaching for the rats, the mere presence of the rats (and other small white furry critters) caused visible distress to Albert.

The sister, so to speak, of Classical Conditioning is Counter Conditioning.  This is the process of pairing one conditioned stimulus with another conditioned stimulus–pairing a negative stimuli with a positive stimuli or vice versa  to try and change an emotional response to the initial stimulus.  A friendly dog who gets excited on leash when he sees another dog gets leash popped and yelled at for being crazy, over time the dog’s feeling about other dogs (when on leash) changes–the positive stimuli of the other dogs is paired with the negative stimuli of the leash pops and being yelled at and over time the dog starts disliking other dogs when they see them on leash.  Conversely, with dogs fearful of other dogs, we can pair super yummy treats with the presence of others to create a positive association with other dogs.

Both counter and classical conditioning are extremely powerful; so much so that there can actually be single event learning.  If the conditioned stimulus (or second conditioned stimulus in the case of counter conditioning) is on a far end of the spectrum, a stimulus can, in one repetition, create a lasting connection.  In order for single event learning to happen, the conditioned stimulus needs to either be really horrible or really amazing–I’m talking winning a jackpot $600,000,000 lottery or something extremely catastrophic happening.  On October 11th, 2012 I stopped at a fast food restaurant to grab dinner in the 30 minute drive I had between a long day of lessons and two evening classes–this was the last time I have eaten at this particular restaurant because I got serious food poisoning after this meal (this is also why I can still remember the exact date).  I was, by far, the sickest I have ever been in my entire life.  I had food poisoning sickness for about 48 hours but then suffered for another week from residual side effects of dehydration and having queazy feelings at the thought of eating anything for days after (and then the effects of not eating anything for days).  This was a very powerful counter conditioned response that has left a lasting connection between eating from this restaurant and feeling like death.  I never aim for this type of single learning event, but the fact that it can happen really shows the power of counter conditioning and classical conditioning.

I use these tools frequently in my training, in fact my handouts on these skills are probably two of the most frequently printed and used (probably second only to body language handouts)! I use a lot of classical conditioning with puppies during their socialization trips and experiences.  I want to really stack the deck in my favor that my puppy will be comfortable as an adult in many situations so I frequently use classical conditioning as they experience the world.  I use counter conditioning frequently (though not exclusively) when working with fearful dogs, fear aggressive dogs, and with reactive dogs to help them change their feelings about the negative stimulus.  When we change how the dogs feel about the stimulus, we often change their reaction to it–if they are no longer fearful of people, they don’t feel the need to get defensive, so we can really address the root cause of their concerns.

1 Comment
  1. Great points! Always encouraged to read reminders about this. It’s slow & steady work, but it really makes a difference. We’re using a classical conditioning protocol with our leash reactive dog, and I think it’s helping.

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