Classical and Operant Conditioning in Dog Training

If you were to look up the terms "Classical and Operant Conditioning" online, you'd likely get a slew of scientific terminology that may or may not make sense to you. This blog will attempt to boil it all down into simple terms with examples that are easy to relate to.

Classical and Operant Conditioning are terms that describe learning in humans and animals. Learning affects behavior, and for the purpose of this blog, I'll be focusing on canine behavior. Understanding how dogs learn can assist you in getting inside the minds of your four-legged friends to help you get the behavior you want from your dog while eliminating behavior that is unsafe, unhealthy or unwanted. Once you understand your role with what your dog learns by understanding how he learns, you'll have much more success with your training.

Classical Conditioning: 

Think "Associative Learning" - or the fact that dogs learn through association. For example: Imagine you pick up your dog's leash and he starts doing the happy dance. A strap of cloth or leather has no intrinsic value to a dog (other than maybe something fun to chew on), so why does he respond so excitedly?  Here's the answer. He's excited because he has learned through repitition that when you pick up the leash, you are going for a walk. This creates an association. Fido has an involuntary response (excitement) which leads to the happy dance.  He didn't decide to be excited - it is just his involuntary reaction.  The association is leash = walk.  If your dog loves walks, it makes perfect sense why he would get excited with anything associated with a walk, like picking up the leash.

Operant Conditioning: 

Think "Consequences" - or the fact that dogs learn through actions resulting in rewards or punishments. For example: You have trained your dog to sit and become calm before putting the leash on to go for a walk. In this case the dog must perform a voluntary action of sitting and relaxing. If he complies, Fido enjoys the reward of going for a walk.  If he doesn't sit and relax, he is denied the walk (which is a punishment).  Either way, Fido's behavior has a consequence. This is a trained or learned behavior where an operation or series of operations will yield either wanted or unwanted results.  

So What?

As with the most important things in life, awareness is half the battle. I've seen many instances with clients where they were using Classical and Operant Conditioning against themselves because they were unaware they existed or how they worked. 

It's not uncommon for me to go to a client's house and witness their walking preparation routine only to realize it is all happening incorrectly.  Here's a common scenario. The human grabs the leash and Fido starts to spin, jump, pant and bark. The human puts the leash on a very excited Fido and scurries out the door.  Sound familiar? It does to my clients. Using very coloful verbiage and serious complaints, my clients don't understand why their dog acts so crazy before a walk. What they don't realize is both Classical and Operant Conditioning have created this unwanted scenario.

Let's analyze....

Fido has already been Classically Conditioned to get excited by the leash because he knows leash = walk. Remember, this excitement is an involuntary response, he's not choosing to be exicited. Now layer on top of this excitement a willy-nilly (and often unintentional) pre-walk routine which only hurts matters worse. The Operant Conditioning (putting the leash on and walking out the door with an overexcited dog) is a reward. Behaviors that are rewarded will most likely be strengthened and repeated.   In short, Fido is being taught that spinning, jumping and barking is good and will earn him a walk.  

What we need to do is change the association and the ritual!  

We just saw an example of how Classical and Operant Conditioning can work against you...now let's look at ways you can use them in your favor. Let's take our same scenario and improve it.

We all know by now that the leash will most likely get Fido excited. This  Classically Conditioned response is perfectly normal but if he is getting way over-excited then we need to tone it down and we'll do this by changing his association with the leash. Try picking up the leash and not going for a walk. Just grab it, carry it around the house and then put it back. Boring, right? Do this enough times and soon picking up the leash will have less meaning and will elicite a different response from Fido as the weeks pass.

As far as Operant Conditioning goes, you're going to create a new routine. Moving forward, you are going to have Fido sit, and relax before hooking that leash to go for a walk. This should be easier now that you have mellowed his association with the leash. Fido is now being rewarded with a walk for sitting and being calm. In time, this will become a conditioned response where Fido will see the leash and go sit politely by the door for the leash to be put on. Wouldn't that be nice!

Perfect practice makes perfect, so be sure to be rigourous and consistent with your new routine to expect the best possible results. Also remember to be patient. It may take a while for Fido to get the hang of things. As with all dog training, if you're having trouble...call in a professional.

Now that you understand the fundamentals of Classical and Operant Conditioning, look for areas in your life where you would like to see improvement with your dog's behavior and apply what you've learned in this blog to your every day life. 

Trust me, it works! 

-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

© Thriving Canine 2013