Classical (Pavlovian) conditioning

We have seen how to get behaviour. Now we need to get the dog to perform them when we want them to as opposed to randomly.

Pavlov stumbled across the fact that animals make associations between significant events and seemingly unconnected criteria. In his initial experiments dogs began to associate the sound of a bell with food. More importantly, they reacted to the bell the way they reacted to food and began to salivate.

What does this mean to us?

We have been rewarding behaviours that we want from our dogs. We now want the dog to perform these behaviours on command. Firstly we have to make an association by pairing the command word and the required action. This is simply a case of saying the word as the dog performs the act. This will take several repetitions.

Once this association is made, the command will result in the required action, providing of course that you are providing sufficient motivation (positive reinforcement).

We then need to make sure the dog is only rewarded for performing that act after the command and at no other time. If the dog performs the action at any other time simply ignore it. It will soon stop.

The important point is that the command and the required action must be paired for the association to be made.  This means immediately before (0.5 sec) or at the time the action is performed.

We are often certain our dogs understand a command and blame non-compliance on disobedience but the problem could very easily be bad association which equates to a lack of understanding on the dogs part.

If a dog doesn’t perform a command it either doesn’t understand the command or it has a more rewarding alternative.

Bad associations are the root cause of a lot of training issues and should never be overlooked when you are trying to improve your dogs behaviour. Timing is critical in classic conditioning.

Consider these situations:-

If you say “sit” and then push your dogs bum into the sit position, the dog is likely to associate the word sit with the act of having his bum pushed. It will take him a while to see past your confusing ways.

If you say “heel” as you check your dog then “heel” is  going to be associated with the act of being checked and with time may well become a conditioned aversive rather than a green light to walk to heel.
If you say “leave” whilst you slap your dog to get him to leave the bite then “leave” will mean here comes the punishment and again won’t be the command you want it to be.


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