Classical Conditioning to Train Dogs

How Do I Use Classical Conditioning to Train My Dog?

Clicker Training
Trainers who use clicker training are actually using classical conditioning. When a trainer wishes to start clicker training a dog, first the dog needs to be taught the significance of the clicker. The clicker actually marks the moment of desired behavior. In order to create the association in the dog's mind, the trainer begins by clicking and then treating the dog ("treating" can be food, play, or anything else the dog is motivated to have). This is repeated until the dog learns the association between clicker and the positive outcome.

I've also read several accounts that mention reversal of reflexive behaviors can be trained utilizing classical conditioning. This involves changing something the dog views as "negative" and turning it into a "positive." An example would be a dog which is afraid of loud noises, such as fireworks. In this case, the trainer would start with the dog far removed from the firecrackers but the dog would still be able to barely hear them. At the same time the noise starts the trainer begins feeding the dog his favorite treat. The idea is to gradually wean the dog away from his fearful reaction to fireworks by associating their loud noises with something the dog thinks of as positive. This is called counterconditioning.

This is related to counterconditioning and involves repeatedly subjecting the dog to a stimulus until they become desensitized to it. By counterconditioning - creating a positive emotion from a previously negative one - the trainer is actually desensitizing the dog to it at the same time.

These instances might seem counterintuitive to the "standard" definition of classical conditioning. To recap, the standard definition of this training method states that you associate a previously neutral stimulus (which elicits no emotional/reflexive reaction) with a stimulus of some significance (which elicits an emotional/reflexive reaction).

In other words, Pavlov consistently rang the bell to call his dogs to eat; therefore the dogs associated the ringing of the bell (previously a neutral stimulus) with food. Upon hearing the bell, the dogs would then salivate (a natural, reflexive response to food).

All of the aforementioned instances are, indeed, examples of classical conditioning. There are many trainers who argue that classical conditioning only deals with innate, reflexive actions - i.e., actions over which you have no control - such as an eye blinking in response to air being blown into it.

As it turns out, classical conditioning is merely the association of stimuli. A stimulus, of course, is "An agent, action, or condition that elicits or accelerates a physiological or psychological activity or response." A "response" in this case can actually signify "emotion," too. Another way to look at it is to compare this method with operant conditioning.

In operant conditioning, the consequence - either positive or negative - is based on the dog's behavior. In classical conditioning, the dog's behavior has no bearing on the outcome.


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