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Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is one of the foundational building blocks used when training a dog and its concepts are utilized in almost every facet of dog training.

Classical conditioning was discovered by Ivan Pavlov in the 1890s while he was researching salivation in dogs. Pavlov used food to make the dogs salivate for the experiment. The salivating of the dog when the food was presented was an unconditioned response of the dog much like if a dog yelps in pain or jumps when startled.

Over the course of the experiment Pavlov added a metronome that would make a sound whenever the dogs food bowls were presented. Soon enough the dogs began to associate the sound with the food, and they would begin to salivate by just hearing the sound.

It is this same type of classical conditioning that owners use to train their dogs for basic obedience commands such as sit down and stay. When a dog gives a certain action such as sitting down, and the owner of the dog says “sit” while a reward is given at the same time to the dog.

“Everyone wants to know how to condition a dog to do desirable behaviors, however many times people accidently condition their dogs to do undesirable behaviors instead.”

After a while, the dog will then begin to associate the command with the action and the action with the reward. This is how a dog is conditioned to display a behavior when a command or a que is given.

Dogs can be conditioned to display very favorable behaviors based upon certain conditions that are met. One of the best examples of this would be to condition a dog to go lay down on their bed when a doorbell rings and a visitor enters the home.

This is a wonderful use of classical conditioning when you would like to get a dog to automatically display a desirable behavior without having to give the dog a command. Utilizing classical conditioning one could theoretically condition a dog to do any behavior if the certain environmental conditions are met.

Everyone wants to know how to condition a dog to do desirable behaviors, however many times people accidentally condition their dogs to do undesirable behaviors instead.

 A dog who, as a little puppy, barks to get let out of a kennel will be conditioned to bark whenever the owner begins to let the dog out of the kennel. Even though the dog may no longer bark to be let out, the action of the owner letting them out is the condition that triggers them to bark while inside of the kennel. 

This can be a very troublesome behavior for owners to deal with as it takes a lot of work and someone who knows how to use counter conditioning in order to stop that bad behavior.

Typically, bad behaviors that dogs display, such as barking to get out of a kennel, that develop into conditioned behaviors can be extremely difficult to change as owners unknowingly continue to reinforce it, however other conditioned responses such as teaching a dog to lay down when the doorbell rings can naturally fade away over time.

“So, what if you completely phased out treats and now your dog no longer listens to the command of sit?”

The term used to describe this is called extinction and it happens when the connection between the unconditioned stimulus and the conditioned stimulus is broken. In the case of Pavlov’s dogs, the sound from the metronome was repeated without the food being presented until the dogs no longer salivated due to hearing the noise.

A behavior like sitting on command can go through extinction if the owner gives the command repeatedly without having the dog sit or providing a reward, therefore rewards should never fully be removed from any behaviors that the dog has been conditioned too but rather should be switched to intermittent reinforcement.

So, what if you completely phased out treats and now your dog no longer listens to the command of sit? Luckily, dogs that have been conditioned to something previously can easily return to a conditioned response shortly after the response has been neutralized, this is known as spontaneous recovery.

 Unfortunately, a spontaneous recovery can happen to bad behaviors that were previously conditioned.

This is one of the more challenging obstacles to overcome in dog training, especially when you have dogs that go back to exhibiting bad behaviors after they have begun to make progress.

This is one reason why having a solid counter conditioning training plan in place and following through with it is so vital to successful dog training.

As you can see classical conditioning can be both a good and a bad thing regarding dog training and the examples of it being implemented are countless.

Being able to understand how it works and its relation to your dog’s world is vitally important to understanding why your dog is displaying certain behaviors that may be confusing to you.

Utilizing classical conditioning can also help you to improve your dog’s quality of life as you work to create more desirable behaviors during your daily interactions with your dog.

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