Pavlov’s…err, Peggy’s…Dogs!

Classical Conditioning as an Easy, Alternative Dog Training Approach

First, (MAJOR Nerd Alert!), let’s take a look at Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning. If this is just WAY too nerdy, skip ahead and watch the new videos I’ve posted, below.

In classical conditioning, the probability of an organism’s reflexive (as opposed to learned) behavioral response to stimuli is increased. This is achieved through introducing a neutral stimulus, which becomes the conditioned stimulus (or CS), followed by an unconditioned stimulus (or US), which already elicits the unconditioned response (or UR), so that the CS produces the same response. In classical conditioning the first stimulus predicts the second.

For example, when training dogs, the introduction of a sound, such as a click of my tongue off the roof of my mouth, followed by the delivery of a small piece of meat, results in the neutral sound–the tongue click–serving to trigger my dog’s appetite and resulting excited anticipation of food. The meat is an unconditioned stimulus of high value to my dog; she has an involuntary urge to eat meat without having to be taught to want it. When I later make my tongue-click sound, the click, serving as the conditioned stimulus, triggers anticipation of food—the unconditioned response–in the same manner that physical presentment of food—the unconditioned stimulus–would.

Classical conditioning: CS/click–>US/meat–>UR/appetite = CS/click–>UR/appetite.

In operant conditioning, the frequency of a voluntary response (conditioned response, or CR) is either increased or decreased through exposure to a discriminative stimulus (DS), followed by additions (+) or negations (-) of stimuli; either desired reinforcement (R), or aversive punishment (P) as perceived by the training subject. These consequences are contingent upon the preceding behavior occurring. Associations are made between the discriminative stimulus (DS), specific conditioned responses (CR), and the consequences that immediately follow (R, P).

I utilize operant conditioning, while training dogs, in order to increase the frequency of specific actions. One example involves accelerating a dog’s desire to touch my open hand when I present it. To achieve this I utilize the clicking sound I taught earlier, using classical conditioning, first clicking and then presenting a piece of meat. Having associated the “click” with food, I can now imply a food reward at the moment a desired (by me) behavior occurs. I do this by using the bridging stimulus—my click–to inform the dog that a gain of a desired reward (food) occurs as a contingent result of the preceding behavior (touching my hand).

Operant Conditioning: DS/hand target–> CR/touch hand with snout –> R+/ Click–> gain of food reward = increase in contingent behavior (hand targeting) frequency.

Classical conditioning differs from operant conditioning in several ways. Classical conditioning pertains to involuntary behaviors, while operant conditioning pertains to voluntary behaviors. In classical conditioning a stimulus is presented first, and associated with an involuntary behavior, while in operant conditioning, a behavior occurs first and then a stimulus is associated, as a contingent consequence. Classical conditioning does not require the student to actively engage, while operant conditioning involves the student engaging in actions that increase associated rewards and reduce associated punishment.

Phew! Got that? Okay! Now for some easy to understand videos, which both utilize Classical Conditioning!

The Bacon Recall:

Teaching your Dog to “Drop”

Why I am a “Crossover” Dog Trainer: Warning, this is a LONG Post!

Having been a professional dog trainer for 41 years, I can honestly say I’ve tried many different approaches over the years. In the eighties, while writing for DogWorld Magazine, a great deal of my focus dealt with the perils of personal punishment. However, despite my anti-punishment position, I still advocated for painless, “remote corrections” of the quick-shake-of-the-penny-bottle sort. In my mind, the idea of interrupting a well acclimated, socially adapted dog with an impersonal noise was far superior to heavier punishment of the angry, personally directed variety. What I had not yet totally embraced was the idea of zero “corrections” (punishment) of any sort.

In the last ten years I have been exploring scientific data pertaining to behaviorology and learning theory, and the evidence totally supports a constructive, reward-based approach in lieu of any punishment of any kind. The question is, as logical and humane and desirable as this is, can my students apply the necessary protocols to their satisfaction, and see results that prevent them from becoming overwhelmed, frustrated and angry at their dogs? Does the use of a mild positive punisher, such as a sound interruption, send clients down the slippery slope of focusing upon the behaviors they don’t want, rather than patiently panning for the golden behaviors they do want? Only you, my students can answer some of these questions.

What I can say is, punishment is performed purely for the owner’s relief from frustration, at the dog’s expense. Punishment strives to shut down unwanted behavior, but fails to teach the dog student what to do instead. When applied personally, it poisons the way the dog views the punitive person. When applied remotely, depending upon the severity and the dog’s individual social experience and temperament, it can easily embed anxiety, and even terror and learned helplessness. When dog’s stumble into startling, scary, painful, unexpected consequences, they experience their world as an unsafe, unpredictable place. When a well adjusted dog gets a little bit of a rain on his unwanted behavior, I doubt the sky falls or his world collapses. But does that justify taking a shortcut, going for the “don’t or else” approach of any sort, rather than taking the longer, patience-trying route of purely positive reinforcement based training? Crossing over to reward based training has worked fine for me, but I’m really good at preemptively managing and redirecting my dogs. I also am hard to annoy, irritate and frustrate.

Dog training can be a difficult, sometimes frustrating task, and it would be easy for many people to lose their tempers at pet dogs when applications of new, reward-based training protocols fail to get desired results. When training efforts fail to give the same speedy, and sometimes immediately gratifying results the application of positive punishment can achieve, people may revert to punitive measures. Many pet owners fatigue of trying to manage the environment, anticipate and prevent unwanted behavior, and deliver rewards in response to antithetical or desired behavior. Naughty-seeming, annoying behaviors slip past, and people find themselves feeling helpless as their dog runs amok.

While prevention, redirection and rewards are the first, best choices for dog behavior modification, problem behaviors frequently persist. This is almost always because the struggling new trainer is either still trying to get their applications right, or is still combating sabotage from other family members or their own mistakes. Does putting a bit of a kibosh on the rampant dog break him, or just put him on notice their may be consequences of the punitive sort? When people snap at their dog, and then rally, does the dog carry artifacts of aversion, stress, and inhibition going forward into new learning experiences? The data strongly supports that it does. Perhaps a bit of scolding, here and there, is just part of living with human beings who tend to treat dogs as…other human beings. But from an analytic standpoint, this is an incorrect way of going about raising and training a pet dog.

Living with dogs, training is going on during every interaction, whether the handler intends it or not. Pet owners who generally fail to manage their dogs’ behaviors or to set preemptive boundaries accidentally teach their dogs to be pushy and entitled. When the occasion arises where this handler suddenly desires- and expects- their dog to be obedient and subservient, the dog experiences stress and resists. Their human, who generally behaves in a permissive manner, has suddenly become bossy, or has raised expectations for self control beyond the level the dog is able to demonstrate. The stress these unexpected human behaviors generate results in stress out-letting behaviors such as the barking (Zulu), chewing (Trixie), and jumping (River) demonstrated in my Sunday 101 class.

Ignoring doesn’t work, obviously! And sometimes dogs are so over threshold, and so frustrated, they are not interested in food rewards or petting. While interrupting the unwanted behavior works in a pinch, and it could be argued using an interrupter eases the building frustration pet owners may be feeling, it fails to teach the dog what TO DO. This is why I do not normally introduce or even use the interrupters we once heavily relied upon to “remotely correct” unwanted behavior. While it “works” in the short run, to interrupt a dog by startling him out of the unwanted behavior, it worked by creating a competing stress that caused the dog to temporarily shut down. While this might serve as emergency intervention, it would not be required if a reward based system of management and training were embraced in a comprehensive, 24/7 manner.

Does that sound exhausting? Yes! Is it worth the extra work to try all other options, and tweak your approaches within those options, before (if ever) resorting to any sort of punishment? Yes!  The moral to the story is, our goal is to achieve the best training outcome using the least punitive measures. I suggest each of you study Dr. Susan Friedman’s Humane Hierarchy and determine whether you have tried everything else before resorting to positive punishment of any sort- even the seemingly benign interrupter. Because if we can do it a kinder way, and get the same or better results, of course we should!


Today’s Dog Training Homework: Rear-End Awareness

Hi, Students!

Today we worked on rear-end awareness, an easy and fun way to get your dog thinking and moving in a useful and creative manner. A dog with rear-end awareness has improved coordination, which enhances behavior in the house as well as in response to increasinly complex performance cues. These videos by some trainers I respect will give you many new ideas and tips for following up on today’s lesson. Please activate your own blogs, and then record and post pictures and videos of your home practices. I can’t wait to see all of your new ideas and interpretations!