trusting paws

by Naomi Heck, M.Ed., CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA


When it comes to training, many of us think about teaching our dogs to obey by rewarding good behavior.  But there is another, more primal form of learning called classical conditioning.  Classical conditioning occurs when something that previously had no meaning (a neutral stimulus) becomes associated with something that automatically produces a reflexive response.   The association is made when the 2 events occur close together in succession.  For example, the sound of a doorbell (originally meaningless to puppies) is always followed by a visitor at the door (excitement).  Eventually the sound of the doorbell alone triggers intense excitement in dogs.

Remember learning about Pavlov in school?  Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist in the 1800’s who is best known for his experiments on salivary gland secretion in dogs.  The dogs in his laboratory involuntarily salivated when offered food, similar to how I salivate whenever I see a Double Chocolate brownie.  Pavlov discovered that when a sound (bell or buzzer depending on who you ask) was presented a few seconds before a dog was given food, and this sequence was repeated many times, the sound alone made the dog salivate.

Why bother talking about Pavlov and his drooling dogs?  Because we can thank him for discovering classical conditioning.  Understanding how classical conditioning works can help us prevent emotional problems in our dogs.  For example, a puppy that has many happy and safe experiences with children the first 12 months of his life is likely to be friendly rather than aggressive toward children when he becomes an adult.  Socialization involves classical conditioning and is best done before fear is established.

A behavior modification program based on classical conditioning can also be useful in changing a dog’s negative attitude into a positive one.  I recently did this with Chase.  Last year I bought a Magic Bullet™ blender to make fruit smoothies for breakfast.  Chase ran out of the room every time I turned it on.  Soon, just the sight of the blender was enough to make him fearful.  I had to do something to ease his fear.

When Chase was in the kitchen, I quickly turned the blender on and off for just a split second.  I then tossed a fistful of treats toward him before he could run out.  I did that every day, gradually increasing the number of seconds the blender roared as he became comfortable and was eagerly eating.  As long as the blender was on, it rained food.  The treats stopped as soon as the noise stopped.

The Magic Bullet™ spent the winter in the pantry.  I recently brought it out to make my first smoothie of the summer.  Chase was napping elsewhere in the house.  As soon as he heard the roar of the blender, he came running into the kitchen excitedly looking for flying food.

I was proactive when Chase was a puppy and did something similar with fireworks and thunderstorms.  Of course I protect him from loud noises by keeping him inside.  But this 4th of July, we sat on the back deck together.  With every boom we heard off in the distance, he got a piece of chicken.  He seemed disappointed when the fireworks ended.  Classical conditioning is powerful stuff!


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About Simba's Mom

I was born and raised in California, lived in Pennsylvania for several years, and have recently moved to Delaware. I have gone from being a teacher for 20 years to a blogger and now back to teaching but still blogging. I have a great dog named Simba. Simba is a German Shorthaired Pointer. Life with Simba is an adventure every day. I have had dogs my entire life but I have learned most about dogs living with Simba. German Shorthaired Pointers really do become your best friend. They become extremely attached and that is why they say they have the Velcro phenomenon. Simba now has a sister 8 years younger and her name is Gypsy.
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