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Classical Conditioning vs Teaching

Teaching a Dog vs Shutting a Dog Down

Someone recently said ‘Dogs cannot think’. This caught me by surprise so I went to one of my peers and they confirmed that ‘that person’s dogs cannot think because she has used operant conditioning to stop them from thinking’. This hit home, as many of my clients have taught their dogs bad behaviors by ‘classically conditioning’ them or teaching them to perform the bad behavior, accidentally.

Teaching does not alter the emotions unless you use aversive teaching, which can cause aggression and anxiety problems. Even positive training that is not consistent between family members can result in a nervous dog, or one that learns to ‘bully’ family members.

If you are using repetition and rewards to teach a behavior then it is teaching. It doesn’t alter the emotions unless the dog is ‘self-satisfying’. If the dog realizes that this new behavior will stop fear or stress then you can change the behavior, but it is the dog who is managing their emotions.

The dog is still reacting to a situation that is happening in their environment.  This is why many dog trainers cannot help dogs with reactive, anxiety, and aggression problems. They are trying to teach the dog a new behavior without dealing with the cause.

I’ve watched people spend 1 year in reactive rover classes without any improvement. Because these people are focused on ‘making the dog behave now’ – but at home the dog is allowed to behave inappropriately. This is called ‘associative’ learning. The dog is learning to fear the training center because that is where bad things happen. Or they may fear going for a walk because they are constantly corrected. Or, they may fear a specific person, or dogs, etc. The list of what a dog can be accidentally taught to fear is endless.

Shutting a dog down in private 1:1 sessions, over 1 – 4 weeks looks impressive. The owner is happy. But what you will notice over time is that your dog will become anxious, and even display OCD behaviors. This is because you haven’t fixed the problem, you’ve masked it. You’ve put it in a pressure cooker and as time passes the pressure will increase until ‘boom’. The dog attacks suddenly or the OCD behaviors make it impossible to live with the dog.

When Dog Training Doesn’t Work

You need to the emotional, chemical, and survival response to a stimuli. Teaching an alternative behavior to engage in when the dog is stressed or fearful may work in mild cases, but you are not dealing with the problem.  You need to override the dog’s natural response to a situation.  Again, it is almost impossible for dog trainers or even behaviorists who do not have an applied animal behavior education to successfully execute in severe cases because they have not learned the definition of an emotion.  (A chemical release from the brain that alters how a dog behaves in a specific situation.)

The dog is acting in ‘survival mode’ based on stimuli in their environment.  Teaching the dog to look at you will not work because the dog’s brain is still releasing a specific chemical from their brain.  Think ‘child psychology’ meets ‘motivational seminar’ and you have a general idea of what is needed to make a permanent change. So in this situation we cannot do anything to make the dog ‘learn’ to not react with inappropriate behavior. That is like saying you can be ‘taught’ not to fall asleep when tired, or screaming when frightened.  In this case we need Classical Conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is used when the dog has no cognitive control (thinking/choice) over their behavior. They see a dog, feel fear, and they react. Much in the same way you’d snap your hand back if you put it on a hot stove. You wouldn’t think ‘I need to remove my hand.’ Your brain would react (visceral response) to the pain before you even knew you were in pain.

This is what is happening with your dog.  Taking your dog around other dogs will not help because you are just reinforcing the fear. Teaching your dog to look away without teaching the foundation behaviors may help. At least, it can make the behavior appear to be fixed in 3 – 8 sessions, but the problem will resurface because you’ve altered the ‘reaction’ and not solved the problem.   This is what a lot of trainers do. They temporarily change the visceral response by engaging the dog in something it wants and overriding the brain’s fear/flight.  They are often in a very low stimulation ‘set up’, so the dog knows there is no real fear and they are highly focused on what they want (food/toy). In 3 – 5 sessions your dog can appear to be good around the stimulus (another dog, doorbell, someone walking down the road) so you go away happy.

The problem is, a little thing that we face every day called trigger stacking, and a chemical released by your dog’s fear/flight brain center called Cortisol. When the trainer (who has taught your dog to trust them) leaves, then the ‘crutch’ is gone, your dog starts relearning the fear and regresses.

This is why we use Classical Conditioning. No it won’t work in 5 sessions. There is no ‘quick fix’ in behavior that is linked to fear or fight.  But, over time it will ‘print’ a new visceral response over your dog’s current behavior. We are actually reprogramming the dog’s brain to lower the amount of Cortisol released when it is in a frightening situation.

10 Steps to using Classical Conditioning Correctly

  1. If you correct or punish then you are not associating a positive emotion with the stimuli. You are making the problem worse.
  2. If you ignore bad behavior and reward good behavior ‘at the same time’ then you are showing the dog that to gain your approval, or a reward, then it must stop the bad and engage in the good behaviors.
  3. Have a party when the trigger is present. Ignore dog when trigger is not visible. This basically means that if you can’t be bothered getting excited enough to excite your dog then your wasting your time. We are trying to change a dog’s emotional response. You are the mitigating factor here. You need to be happy and excited over the good.
  4. Classical Conditioning only happens when the dog is around triggers. You can’t condition a dog at home, in the basement, or anywhere the trigger is not present.
  5. When you are walking, if a trigger walks into view a party should start – immediately, not 5 seconds later. Too many times people start to tense up, and start to yank on the dog’s leash making things worse….then after the dog reacts they bring the treats out to lure the dog back to them. This is ‘backwards’ to what really works.
  6. Act happy. Smile. Dance. Be interesting to your dog.
  7. If you are boring, stressed, or don’t want to ‘play’ and be happy with your dog then you will never be able to fade the treats.
  8. If you play with dogs, make walks interesting, and play with a dog when the trigger is present then your dog will forget treats very quickly.
  9. A dog will only ‘learn’ when it is willing and happy.
  10. Keep food out of your hand, but out of sight. Single with an empty hand, and then get the treat. Use the treat to teach a dog, and then get rid of it. UNLESS, there is a trigger present.

It is ‘ancient – behavior – ‘and then reward’ not ‘ancient – behavior and reward’

  1. A reward is never shown beforehand. It is not promised. It is not in your hand.
  2. Dogs don’t learn when they are being bribed, or lured.
  3. If you are using treats after a dog can do a trick then you are bribing. If you bribe too much then you will never be able to lose the treats.
  4. Never engage in classical conditioning when you are in a bad mood.
  5. Classical conditioning is 24/7. Your dog will start coming to you and offering the behavior that makes you happy. If you send the dog away because you are too tired then your dog will become confused, frustrated, and will shut down emotionally.
  6. STOP THE REACTIVE BEHAVIOR. If this means stopping the walks, not visiting where there are triggers, or changing the environment so the dog cannot practice aggression then you must do it until your dog is better. Your desires are second to the pain and frustration your dog suffers due to the stress and fear.

Classical conditioning is powerful. It can teach dogs to stay with you when walking in a field, instead of going off exploring the rabbit trails. It can teach a dog to stay and ‘relax’ so that your dog can stay for a long time. It can teach a dog not to bark when the doorbell rings (but still bark when it is 2am and someone opens a window or the door). Or it can lower a dog’s arousal so that it stops biting people.