Understanding Conditioning in Dog Training

WRONG type of Conditioning!

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

Classical Conditioning

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.

I am Going to Change Bad Behavior Before it Becomes Habit

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?

Condition and Reward Good Behaviors to Form Good Habits!

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

Be patient!!!  It is very difficult to change a bad behavior that has developed into a 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! 

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  1. Linda says:

    What is the best way to train your dog to use a litter box? He is house broken but what if for some reason I have to leave him longer than I want and have no choice but to leave him alone at home while I am at work.


  2. Kelly says:

    Linda: You might want to consider hiring a pet sitter to come to your home mid-day to give your dog a potty break and a little exercise. It’s hard for dogs to stay home alone all day without becoming very bored & lonely and possibly developing bad habits. I am a professional pet sitter, bonded & insured in Medford, OR (Kelly’s Pet Sitting). You could google pet sitter in your area or go to http://www.petsit.com for a listing of pet sitters who belong to Pet Sitters International. I would highly recommend getting someone who is bonded, insured & a member of either PSI or NAPPS (National Assoc. of Professional Pet Sitters.) After all, you are allowing someone into your home while you are away and trusting them with your precious pet. Good luck with this!


  3. ANGIE says:

    hi my jack russell is 14 weeks old and keeps attacking my daughter how do i stop this behavior


    Minette Reply:

    Keep him on a leash and train with him! He should not have access to your daughter if he is behaving this way!! Depending on how old your daughter is, I would have her feed him and work on some training while you hold his leash at a safe distance. They need to bond, but safely and read this article



  4. Owners need to have more patience when training and taking good care of their dogs. It’s worth remembering that practice makes perfect. This will be a lot easier with the given tips above. Thank you very much!


  5. Martine says:

    I got my Podengo Portuguese when she was 4 years old and she reely hate training, I tried every tips I can find, but even If I finaly find a treat she loves, she runs and hide when we train. I do the things she can alredy and always give her a lot of praise, make it short, and try to make this the best time of the day, but still she hates this. she dont like to play either, only a few times a week. Has anyone any suggestions to what I should do?


    Minette Reply:

    There has to be a reason, and in order to be successful you must find out what that reason is… Is there a chance that you were not as positive 4 years ago when you started training, or she got into trouble a lot as a puppy, or something she deemed traumatic happened when you were training her (this could be as simple as a plane flying over and scaring her when you were training). There has to be a root problem.

    In order to fix this problem you must be ingenuitive and come up with cool training plans when you are doing her favorite thing. Train her while you hike if she enjoys that, while you take her to the park, or even in the car.

    You will have to come up with ways to train her while she is already having a good time. Play with her those few times she likes to play and take her favorite toys away so the play has to be interactive with you. Hopefully then your relationship will change and you can begin regular normal training at home!


  6. kerri says:

    My havanese has very low confidence. He whines and cries to be with us, and even though he never got let out of his crate while whining, I cannot break this habit. He also marks in the house occasionally, even though I do my best to always supervise him and have him on a lead in the house or have him crated. I try to ignore his whining but he WILL whine for an hour or longer. I’ve never had a dog so difficult to train or bring up his confidence. He also is very nervous around strangers but after he knows them he is loving and accepting. I am dedicated to working with this dog, whatever it takes. Any suggestions?


    Audrey Reply:

    We have a Havanese too. They are called Velcro dogs as they want to be with their family constantly. Ours scratches on the back door constantly until we let him in. I love him and want him w me, so this isn’t a problem for me. One question is why do you want him in his cage so often? If it is the potty training, it took us 4 1/2 years to get ours to potty outside only, and I still occasionally find accidents. They are such sweet, happy, loyal, SMART dogs. I am glad you are committed. Good luck!


  7. Ashley says:

    Hi, I recently got a pugged from a friend. He is two years old, not fixed. Since day one he has been marking in the house and lifts his leg outside, he even did it in the backseat of my car! I can’t take it, I want him to be able to sleep with me and hangout on the couch etc. so, my girlfriend and I when walking him will not allow him to lift his leg, and we keep him in a crate or on leash inside. I don’t want him to live his life like this and would like a normal dog. Any other suggestions? I honestly don’t want to put the money in to have him fixed if this will not stop the behavior. Thank you.


    Minette Reply:

    Neuter him!!! You are fighting an up hill battle otherwise and there is no reason for him to be intact.


  8. Eduardo says:

    Hi, i just got a 4-6 month old male dog from my aunt, and i trying to potty train him but its goin good. Hes peeing and pooing outside. I keep him in the cage in my room. He never pees when hes free in my room. But once i give him a chance to be out the house. He pees or poos. I right away show what he did and put him back in his cage.

    How can i make him stop doin that? I want him to roam to house and not be always in the cage.

    Thank you.


    Minette Reply:

    Follow him around so you can educate and teach him!

    By allowing him to wander and make mistakes he is conditioning himself that this is okay


  9. Mary Beth Finnerty says:

    Still not quite sure how to apply your advice. Have used urine removal, pulled up all carpts. He is potty trained, asks to go out when we are in the room and even wakes me at night. I STILL find evidence of marking, especially if something is out of place on the floor or if the bed is unmade and draping on the floor! Perhaps he’scompulsively clean! I’m making an efort to tell him when and when not to mark when on walks. Any other suggestions?
    Neutered at 8months…Always had strong “sexual” urges, ie masturbating. Now age 8. My daughter says he is “sneaky”


  10. Pat Rickman says:

    I have a 5 yr Sheltie, who has been obedience trained and has been socialized with other dogs. He is a very sweet and friendly dog however he recently survived an attack by a german sheppard which has understandably changed his behavior. He now is frighten when he sees another big dog to the point he is ready to bolt when we walk him. If he is in the car and sees another dog he acts like a trap dog by barking and running back and forth. It’s so sad to see what he is going through I just don’t know how to reach out and help him It’s been one month since the this happened and I’m not sure how to handle it. Any suggestions?


  11. Linda Sue says:

    My dog poops by his doggie pad seems like he is off on his amie and also a foot away …I bring him to the spot and tell him no and put him in his crate when I take him out after 15 mins I remind him to go on his pad and I pet his head lovingly .. I go to work.take him for a walk before I go . But he will do it when we r all home help


    Minette Reply:

    I think potty pads are confusing… so do most dogs. That is why I don’t recommend them. Read this http://www.thedogtrainingsecret.com/blog/indoor-potty-training/


  12. liza says:

    Using punishment, how do you stop your dog from urinating in the house?


    Minette Reply:

    I don’t use punishment, it is ineffective


  13. Carie says:

    My 6 year old Pit Bull still marks every so often in my dining room in the carpet, on the end corners of all the beds we have 4 beds. He is crate trained and goes normally outside. We have another dog before we had the Pitbull. They have been together since the pit was 10 weeks old. It’s just getting hard to keep dealing with this after all these years. He has ruined carpets comforters furniture etc. it’s just so random.


    Minette Reply:

    You can look into belly bands for the other times. Most dogs don’t want to have to sit in their urine, so it works pretty quickly


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