Why you should care about Classical Conditioning

The dreaded mistake

You're at an agility trial with your dog. You point to the tunnel, but they go over the jump next to it instead. You're pretty sure you called out the right word, and that your body language was solid, but your dog went to the wrong obstacle anyway.

So what do you do? You go back to the club. You practice a lot with jumps and tunnels next to each other. You drill yourself to ensure you say the right word and move the right way. And everything goes GREAT… until your next trial. This time, your dog goes over the A-frame instead of through the weave poles. Different specifics, but you're off course again.

Seriously? Why does this keep happening?

What now? Do you need to do more practice on discriminating between obstacles? Have someone coach you on your cueing? Those are good things to do. But there's something else you may need to improve performance at your next trial: take some time to think about classical conditioning, rather than operant conditioning.

Cliff's Notes version of the terms "operant conditioning" and "classical conditioning"

Let's take a moment to make sure we are all on the same page before we move forward. Here's a quick definition of each of the terms I'm using here:

Operant conditioning: Teaching an animal to perform a specific behavior in response to a specific cue.

Classical conditioning: Associating certain responses (including involuntary actions like drooling and emotional responses) with certain stimuli (e.g., the sound of a bell).

Operant conditioning is the one Skinner (and before him, Thorndike) talked about, and classical conditioning is the one Pavlov spent his days on.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Why think about classical conditioning when your dog is making an operant conditioning mistake (taking the wrong obstacle)? There are a lot of reasons, but let's boil it down to two:

  1. Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are separate only in textbooks.
  2. Emotional responses affect how well operant conditioning works.

Skinner and Pavlov come to all your training sessions (and hang around other times, too)

It's easy to focus entirely on operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is the "I want to teach a cool new freestyle heeling move, and here's how I'm going to set up the training space to make it easier" kind of thinking we do – which is super-important!

Unfortunately, we sometimes get so into thinking about the operant side of things that we get tunnel vision and forget that "Pavlov is always on our shoulders" (to paraphrase Bob Bailey). Even in the lab (where we have the most control), we can't truly separate classical and operant conditioning. They are both always happening. When you focus on teaching an emotional association, the animal will be doing something operant, which is likely to come along for the ride. The same is true the other way around, too.

You can't have one without the other

In other words, no matter how hard we focus on the topography of a behavior, there are also emotional (and sometimes other) associations being formed. If we train while our dog is experiencing undiagnosed pain (for example), the operant behavior we're teaching is likely to pick up a negative classical conditioning association: "It hurts when I do this, so I don't like this behavior."

The associations don't have to be negative, either. If a dog is super-jazzed about a behavior, they may get excited every time you cue it. If they are feeling very tired at the first few training sessions for a new behavior, they may always have a tendency to do the behavior slowly. 

How classical conditioning affects your training

Bottom line: Think about the classical conditioning associations that are being formed when you are training. Will those associations suit your needs in the long run? Or will they make things harder in some future scenario?

One way to avoid problematic associations is to do all your training at a relatively neutral emotional valence. You want your dog engaged and having fun, of course. That said, too much excitement is less than ideal. One option could be to take a break whenever you see your dog ramp up in excitement, rather than accidentally folding that excitement into the behavior. Or maybe you want a lot of excitement in the behavior. In that case, you could choose times when your dog is already excited for those training sessions.

The impacts of stress on performance

Remember I said there were two main reasons to focus on classical conditioning when operant behavior doesn't work as expected? Let's take a closer look at the second one: Emotional responses affect how well operant behavior works. In other words, the classical conditioning we may not be thinking about can have an influence on how well the dog is able to do the operant behavior.

In general terms, this happens because strong emotions increase stress. Stress affects how the brain works. The stronger the emotion (good or bad), the more the body's stress system fires. Above a certain level of stress, the brain shifts gears from "cognitive" to "reactive," if you will. The brain's ability to think through a situation is reduced, and it relies instead on instinctive and habitual behavior. That is great if your dog is being chased by a lion, but not so great if you want them to go to the tunnel and not the jump, but they are too amped up to think straight.

Practical next steps

It's a good idea to keep track of how excited or distressed your dog is both during training and at other times (e.g., when the doorbell rings, at a competition, etc.). Is your dog super-excited? Maybe you should skip this run. Or maybe you should practice something that calms your dog down, or helps them focus, before you start the run. There are lots of different ways to address overexcitement (though that's a topic for a different day). The right calming technique can be very useful when you're looking to get your dog back into thinking mode.

I know you get where I'm going with this, but to make it crystal clear, let's go back to our off course at the agility trial example. Start by learning to monitor your dog's level of emotional arousal at all times. Spend a little time teaching your dog to think through increasingly high levels of arousal (yes, this can be taught). Also, instead of always renting space at the club so you can practice on your own when nobody else is around, consider teaming up with other agility competitors at the club to stage mock trials. Practicing in a situation that approximates your actual trial scenario will help your dog learn to focus even when there's a lot going on.

Let's put on our Pavlov glasses!

It only takes a little time and energy to learn what classical conditioning is happening in your training (and in your dog's daily life). The information you get will help you make adjustments that optimize positive, manageable levels of emotionality. You'll see more success, and your dog will feel better too!

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