Understanding Conditioning in Dog Training
Conditioning affects all of us in normal life and as it relates to our dogs. It is important to understand conditioning and how it works in order to best control it when it comes to our canine companions.
First, let’s get the technical “speak” out of the way and then we can talk in more layman’s terms.
There are different types of conditioning when it comes to behavior. We normally refer to two types of behavioral conditioning when it comes to our dogs; classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
Classical Conditioning: Is a form of learning that involves presentation of a neutral stimulus along with a stimulus of some significance. The neutral stimulus is a stimulus that does not normally affect the behavior of the respondent. The significant stimulus is a stimulus that evokes a natural response. Responses elicited by classical conditioning are not maintained by consequences.
Operant Conditioning: is a form of learning during which an individual learns to modify the occurrence and form of its own behavior due to the association with a stimulus. This is modification of voluntary behavior. Naturally occurring consequences can reinforce, punish, or extinguish behavior and are not always delivered by people.
In Layman’s Terms:
Classical Conditioning is training with a marker like a certain word or a clicker. It is pairing something like a treat, with something that in the beginning is
not understood or known by the dog. By pairing something that the dog would naturally want (the treat) with something that the dog doesn’t really know (the clicker) it conditions the marker (or the clicker) to mean essentially the same thing as the treat after a period of time. Therefore the marker can be used to reinforce desirable behavior.
Operant Conditioning is the dog learning (sometimes on his own) what is reinforcing and what has negative consequences in his own environment. This can involve human/dog training or it can be something that is self-learned.
I believe that both of these types of training are important. I really like classical conditioning because I can better control my dog, his learning and his responses.
But, for the purpose of this article I want to focus on operant conditioning and how it can negatively affect your training without you realizing it.
Often bad behaviors or behavior problems start out small. For whatever the reason, your dog finds the behavior rewarding. He may begin barking and he learns that he enjoys the sound of his own voice, or he sees the mailman leave after barking threatening him.
An intact male dog may begin to mark his territory inside the house.
If you notice the behavior in the beginning, it is usually fairly quick to change. Instead of the behavior being rewarding for the dog, you can change the behavior, or restrict the behavior.
For instance if I have a dog that is constantly looking out the window and barking I am going to restrict his access to that window and if I have a dog marking or urinating in the house I am going to keep him on a leash with me and restrict his access to my house. At my house these things are privileges that need to be earned.
But, I do my best to nip bad behavior in the bud the moment I see it. Even if I think it is a little cute (begging or tail chasing) I must not encourage the behavior or it will become harder to eventually fix.
I recently had an older client at my house with her 4 year old poodle. He was barking incessantly. The problem was that her husband had originally thought it was cute when he barked at the front door and at noises on the TV and rewarded the behavior by encouraging it.
The dog learned that this behavior was appreciated, so he began to show it all of the time. Soon he was barking when a leaf hit the ground, or when his owners moved the furniture and eventually it wasn’t cute anymore.
However, at this point the behavior had become conditioned. He had been showing the behavior for so long it has become second nature.
The same is true with allowing your dog to urinate or defecate in your house for a long time. Instead of being a behavior problem, it becomes a conditioned behavior.
A conditioned behavior is like a habit, whether it be good or bad. But, habits are hard to change; especially well established habits.
Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form because the behavioral patterns we repeat are imprinted in our neural pathways.
The basal ganglion (in the brain) appears to remember the context that triggers a habit, meaning they can be revived if triggers appear.
This is why it is sooo important to create good habits and change the behavior problems immediately when we see them.
People often ask me “Is he too old to learn”? to which I vehemently say “NO! Dogs are never too old to learn!”
But learning is much easier if you are not breaking a bad habit!
Which means you can probably teach your 5 year old Chihuahua to “shake” hands a lot faster than you can re-train him not to bark at everything that moves.
What Can You Do?
Make sure that you are conditioning the good behaviors that your dog shows. Encourage him to lay down, to come when called, to be quiet, and to potty outside. After a period of time good behaviors are also conditioned. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that your dog is “conditioned” to come to you when you call him? But in order to achieve this you have to put in the work and effort to consistently reward it.
In order to achieve conditioning or habit forming, you must be consistent with your reward. You must also fairly consistently or regularly reward these behaviors. You can’t condition the behavior and then never reward your dog for it again or the reward and the habit will extinguish or go away!
Remember that many naughty behaviors your dog is showing are self-rewarding. He doesn’t need you to reward them because he is rewarding himself and so conditioning happens very quickly!
Be very careful what behavior you reward! You may think, initially that you want your dog or your puppy to bark but I guarantee after a time you will want some quiet and silence on command. You don’t need to reward barking, most often it is a self-rewarding behavior, and you do want to reward QUIET!
IF Your Dog Has a Bad Habit
You must be willing to be almost completely consistent or at least aim for 95% consistency and reaction!
This consistency is what helps to form a new behavior.
Think of your dog as a former drug abuser or someone trying to quit smoking. Be patient! Bad habits don’t change overnight.
Don’t give up! Your dog is worth your time and effort and he needs you to be resilient and patient!
A favorite quote of mine that applies to constant, consistent and positive dog training:
Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.
Don’t settle for the bare minimum or give the least effort you think
you can get away with. If you’re going to do something, do it to the
best of your ability!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.