Look over your left shoulder. Look over your right shoulder. Do you see anyone sitting there? Dog trainers do. As famous animal trainer Bob Bailey first said, trainers have scientist Dr. Ivan Pavlov taking a seat on our shoulders. He’s been there since the early 1900s, and I don’t see him losing his perch anytime soon.
Brilliant as a child, Pavlov became known as the grandfather of classical conditioning—also called respondent conditioning—and behaviorism (stay with me here briefly as I explain these terms in the most straightforward way that I can). For a simplistic overview of classical conditioning, think of it as forming associations over repeated exposures by having an innate or automatic response to what happens in your environment. “Innate” means something inborn that comes from your nervous system, muscles, or endocrine glands rather than something created by an experience. A quick example of an innate behavior: if I blow air into your eye, you will blink automatically. You don’t spend time thinking, “There is air in my eye. I think I will blink to block that feeling.” You can form these kinds of associations, positive or negative, with an event.
Another type of learning happens when an animal is repeatedly exposed to a neutral event, such as a grandfather clock chiming in the house twice a day—assuming the sound itself doesn’t scare or concern the dog—and this is called habituation. Technically, habituation is not considered associative learning. It is something to be aware of in a dog’s environment and learning repertoire, however.
Countless books and articles are available that explain classical conditioning in great detail. For a short and insightful overview, I recommend Dr. Jennifer Cattet’s blog post from February 24, 2014, about classical conditioning (blog.smartanimaltraining.com; click on “February 2014” under “Archives.”
Pavlov did an experiment on his laboratory dogs, and he stumbled on the phenomenon of “reflexive” or automatic responses. Animal experiments can be unnecessarily harsh and painful (although the lives of laboratory animals are better than they used to be, we still have a long way to go), and that was even more true in Pavlov’s day. To study digestive patterns in dogs, he put meat powder into the mouths of tied-up (to keep them stationary) dogs and collected their saliva through awful-looking tubes stitched into the sides of their mouths. In time, he noticed that the dogs salivated before the meat powder was presented to them.
Upon further observation, Pavlov noticed that the dogs started to drool (an innate behavior) when the person who fed them entered the room. He then began ringing a bell* prior to the delivery of the meat powder. Soon enough, the dogs would begin to drool merely at the sound of the bell, even when no food delivery followed. The light bulb over Pavlov’s head went off, and his discovery eventually helped him earn a Nobel Prize. The dogs’ bodies learned to respond to the bell. Classical conditioning, therefore, is an important way in which dogs (and humans) learn to associate or pair things together. It is also predictive: the bell predicts the meat.
What do dogs with tubes sewn into the sides of their mouths have to do with dog training? A lot, actually. Before you or I can even attempt to help a dog that is lunging, barking, or growling at other dogs or people—tempting you to join the Midnight Dog Walkers’ Club—it’s imperative that we understand how dogs learn. It’s vital that we gain the knowledge of how to work with an aroused or scared dog because he is a completely different animal from a healthy, happy puppy to whom we are trying to teach a nice “sit.”
We claim to be the smartest species, and we can only improve a relationship with a dog by learning to see the world from his perspective. A dog’s perspective is different from ours, even though, as social animals, we do have a lot in common. Not only do dogs go through their lives nose first, walk on four legs, and have tails, but they obviously lack the same language skills that we have. One of the most successful ways that we can reach into the hearts and minds of our furry canine friends is through classical conditioning. It’s the tool we need to help a dog turn a strong unwanted emotional association (such as fear) into a desired response (such as joy).
Theory into Practice
What does taking advantage of classical conditioning look like in dog training? Let’s go back to a sound: a doorbell. If you had a remote control that you could use to make a doorbell sound (and it was a novel sound to your dog) from inside of your home, the first few times that the dog heard the sound, he might jump if it startled him. Within several repetitions, he would learn to tune out the doorbell if nothing happened in his environment after the sound (this is habituation). In this situation, the doorbell is a neutral event—it doesn’t have any meaning to the dog unless, of course, it happens to scare a noise-sensitive dog. In the case of a noise-sensitive dog, you would proceed very slowly to help the dog through his fear by starting with a muffled sound and working up to the sound at full volume.
Creating healthy, happy relationships means understanding a dog’s perspective.
Most owners don’t walk around with a remote doorbell to help their dog learn to ignore that particular sound. Instead, the doorbell rings and, suddenly, there are visitors—whether friends or strangers—just outside the home, and the owner’s focus is almost guaranteed to shift away from the dog. The dog, in this case, makes either a positive association (“Yippee! New people to jump up on and lick hello!”) or a negative association (“Danger! Strangers at the door! Are they friend or foe?”). Either way, the sound of the doorbell predicts their appearance.
One clever way to stop your dog from running to the door whenever the doorbell sounds is to create a different association for the dog. You ring the remote doorbell gadget and—presto!—chicken “falls from the sky” very close to your dog’s nose just after the tone. Repeat often. The dog isn’t required to do anything but be alive and breathing. You don’t ask him to sit or down. What he does is not contingent on the doorbell ringing. After just a few trials, he associates the ding-dong sound with chicken falling from the sky. Now, the dog hears the doorbell, he gets up and comes over to you, and he looks at you to ask: “Where is the chicken that comes after that sound?” You then move onward to the next way that dogs learn: operant conditioning.
Operant conditioning heads into cued or learned behavior. It has to do with linking behaviors with consequences. When we are dealing with dog that is expressing strong emotions, such as fear, true progress at changing the underlying emotion surrounding the trigger always starts with classical conditioning. Remember this: if you have a dog that is showing strong emotions of fear or frustration, think about Dr. Pavlov sitting on your shoulder and get busy making positive associations for your dog. It is unfair and even unethical to expect or force a dog to sit still or lie down (or whatever command you can think of) if you have not first done the work of reducing or eliminating the dog’s negative emotional state.
Studies show again and again that dogs learn quickly and confidently when food is used in training.
What would happen if your dog despised chicken or was allergic to it? Ding dong! Chicken falls from the sky, but your dog is disgusted by the falling fowl. He will then form a negative association with the bell if you repeat this a few times.
The solution is to test a wide variety of goodies prior to doing any kind of training with your dog. I once worked with a young English Labrador named Hazel whose owner reported that the dog loved everything and anything. “Even spinach?” I asked, because that was the most bitter thing that I could think of. Even spinach, I was assured. So we did a taste test. We asked Hazel to sit and stay, and she watched me put out in small piles a wide variety of training treats that included spinach, carrots, apples, peas, chicken, liver, and beef. We released the dog. For the first few trials, she was so excited by the food that she sucked it all down so quickly, and we wondered if she had tasted any of it. She got more satiated as the trials continued, and then a funny thing happened: Hazel started leaving the spinach. Trial after trial, she gobbled up everything but the dark-green, bitter vegetable (I can hardly blame her!).
Food rewards appear after another dog appears in the German Shepherd’s line of sight, creating a positive association for the reactive dog.
We next did the same taste test with my ten-year-old picky eater, a Border Collie named Radar. Radar walked past every piece of fruit and vegetable and went straight for the meats, but not before he shot us a look that we interpreted as, “Are you kidding me?”
Making an Impression
What you use in training matters, and it matters to the dog, not to us. Don’t buy into the myth that your dog should do what you ask of him merely because “he loves you.” He probably does love you, but, like all animals, dogs seek to find pleasure and avoid pain or discomfort. They really do need sufficient motivation to learn to love new things taught to them by a human being. Some dogs might do what you ask over and over again for a mere pat on the head, just as some people in some fictional land happily go to work every day for free, just for a pat on the back from the boss.
The concept of fear periods seems to be very broad with many interpretations; it can cause intense discussion among trainers, vets, and behaviorists. Author and researcher James O’Heare writes about fear periods in dogs as they grow up. He states the following in the second edition of his book Aggressive Behavior in Dogs: A Comprehensive Manual for Professionals: “A period at around eight to ten weeks of age represents the first ‘fear period,’ as it has come to be known. During this short period, dogs are hypersensitive to aversive stimulation. If intense problematic emotionality is stimulated in the fear period, it effects can be longstanding and very difficult to desensitize.”
Sometimes, if an event is salient enough to the dog (or to a puppy in one of the three fear periods), even one trial can form an association. Pavlov did a little-known additional experiment at the same time as the experiment with the bell and the meat powder—a very cruel experiment, indeed. Remember the kinds of association that an animal (including you) can have to an event in his or her environment? Positive or negative. While some of Pavlov’s dogs were “lucky” in the sense that the sound of the bell came to symbolize that meat was on its way, others had acid dropped onto their tongues just after the bell sounded. You can imagine that it probably takes a dog just one trial of hearing the bell and then getting acid on his tongue to make a negative association; the next time the bell rang, the dog might very well shake his head violently or attempt to flee from the anticipated acid as quickly as possible.
The dog showing his teeth is communicating, canine-style, with the approaching dog.
I should note here that many in the field of canine research point to a second fear period from the age of six to fourteen months in which a young dog may show fear of novel stimuli. That’s a significant amount of time in a dog’s development, and I ask my clients to be very aware of the first fear period (eight to ten weeks) and, after that, be aware of fearful behavior as the dog develops. It’s crucial to not force a dog into a situation in which the dog indicates that he is fearful, no matter his age. Now imagine that your young puppy was frightened or even attacked by a dog during a fear period or while he was small and vulnerable—you now have a serious problem with the puppy forming a negative association with other dogs. For a puppy like this, other dogs appearing in his line of sight can be like ringing a bell and then dropping acid on his tongue: the dog will do everything within his canine power to repel the oncoming dog. Some dogs do try to run away, but we entrap them with our leashes (which we need to ensure safety for everyone). After that doesn’t work, many then begin to bark, lunge, and growl at the oncoming dog; they start displaying behavior that is intended to tell the other dog to go away! And, it frequently works.
I was recently working in my training center with a large-breed dog that was safely tethered near his owner. When the dog lunged at my dog from a distance—even though I knew that the client’s dog might do that—I stopped in my tracks as a kind of unconscious response. I quickly got moving again, and the client’s dog adjusted and got used to my passing by with my nonreactive dog. But even with all of my experience, I still stopped in my tracks for a second, and the dog noticed. I noted that my own well-trained assistant dog never stopped moving and completely ignored the lunge from the other dog. I greatly appreciated that he was better trained than I.
Can you imagine the real-life fear happening inside of your leashed dog when he sees another dog that he has been conditioned to truly fear, either because of his genetic makeup or from a previous terrifying encounter with another dog? This is why many such dogs soon become hypervigilant when outside on walks. For all they know, behind every parked car or bush is another dog (or person), just waiting to pounce. That kind of hypervigilance led one trainer to label these dogs “the quick or the dead.” If one of these dogs lets down his guard and another dog gets him, there is the real chance of his being killed or seriously hurt by a dog that he wasn’t prepared to fend off or warn off.
When dogs fight, they often have canine teeth right in their faces and on their vulnerable necks, which is something that would scare us, too. Add to the mix a frustrated and worried owner who is yanking on the dog’s neck with the leash every time the owner sees a dog, and we have created the perfect way to ensure that our dogs lunge and go berserk whenever they see another dog (or whatever their triggers are).
Back to the Bell
Let’s go back to the doorbell. Training in a laboratory to investigate how dogs learn is a great thing (when it is done without unnecessary pain or fear for the animal), but if you are a real-life dog owner, then Pavlov’s poor dogs aren’t your immediate concern; your dog jumping up on or growling at visitors to your home is.
I always advise dog owners to start by using classical conditioning with their dogs in areas such as doorways that create strong emotions in the dog (positive emotions, such as joy, or negative emotions, such as fear). If your dog is particularly aroused by something, that’s not the time to tell him, “Fido sit, sit, sit, sit, sit, SIT, SIT, SIT!” Instead, look over your shoulder and envision the Russian scientist sitting there, telling you how to proceed so that you can make the doorbell predict chicken.
Once your dog is calm and happy to hear the sound of the doorbell, we can move on to cued behavior. You can choose what that behavior is after you’ve trained it away from the crazy-behavior-inducing door. Let’s say that you want the dog to go lie down quietly on his mat so that you can answer the door in peace. You take out your remote doorbell gadget and hit it. Ding-dong. The dog is now conditioned to find you, look up at you, and wait for his reward. This time, we will change our criteria and, as he is looking at you, ask him to “go to mat.”
Yes, he might be slightly and momentarily confused, just as we might be when learning new words in a second language. Lure him to the mat with a training treat if needed. He should already know this skill and be good at it in a calm setting, so it won’t take many repetitions for him to now understand that the doorbell still means “chicken falls from the sky,” but, in order to obtain it, he first goes and lies down on his mat. As the dog stays on the mat and allows you to open the door peacefully, talk to him and assure him that he is a good boy by tossing more chicken to him. Thus, he is making a happy, joyful, positive association with that person standing at the door, who seems to have prompted the delivery of chicken.
You are again utilizing classical conditioning because the dog is making an association while you are also asking for cued behavior. With enough repetitions, the light bulb in the canine head is turned on, and he will associate the doorbell with being asked to go to the mat. Soon you won’t even need to ask him: the doorbell becomes the cue to go to the mat, lie down, and enjoy the freefall of chicken. Once that is reliable behavior, move from automatic to random dispensing of chicken.
Through conditioning, your dog learns to react calmly when the doorbell rings.
Dogs are always observing us and their surroundings, and things we are not cognizant of can become cues to dogs. I recently worked with a delightful woman from the Deep South. She is a very friendly person, and she had recently adopted a large shelter dog. The dog had begun to bark (and she had a loud bark!) whenever anyone rang the bell or knocked on the door. I was reframing what those sounds meant to the dog, and I was making good progress when, on a whim, I added these words, in a sing-song type of voice: “who is it?” That set the dog off, and she immediately barked. The owner asking “who is it?” after the doorbell rang had become the cue for the dog to bark.
The current state of stress in many of our beloved dogs calls for a paradigm shift in how we think of our dog’s behavior. Instead of focusing on what we don’t want him to do, think instead of what we do want from him and then guide him (with motivation, not with force) to that behavior. We need to be able to take a step back in our training when a dog repeats an unwanted behavior and ask ourselves what we are doing that contributes to that behavior. The dog is getting something out of the behavior, and it probably stems from something that we are doing. I can’t tell you how many times the word “off” or a raised knee becomes the cue for “please jump on me now!” to the dog.
Teaching a dog to enjoy settling in his special place (in this case a mat) is a must-have cue for all dogs.
The Science of Training
To reiterate, I’ve been describing the other manner in which an animal learns: operant conditioning. When a dog “operates on his environment”—in other words, when something happens in his environment and he responds not reflexively but intentionally—there is a consequence for his behavior. The same is true for you in your own human life. Behavior has consequences. We humans like to tell ourselves that we are always in control of our behavior, but are we really? At the very least, we should understand that our own behavior as it relates to our lives and our dogs’ lives does have consequences. If you expect a dog to change, first look at your own behavior and see how you can adjust it. If owners start to do this, dogs everywhere will be very grateful, and so will more than one good dog trainer.
I know that science terminology taken from behaviorism can turn off many a dog owner. Honestly, some of the jargon that scientists use does not do dog owners and non-PhD-degreed humans any favors. I’ve watched those with several advanced degrees get into heated discussions over what category a behavior falls in. People don’t get a dog so that they can learn the joys of scientific jargon and studies. At the end of the day, most dog owners don’t honestly care about the terminology—they just want Rover to behave according to what they and we as a society have decided is good behavior from another species. It is the job of quality trainers to train dogs and teach owners using ordinary human-friendly terms and examples. If a trainer is in it to impress other trainers with big words or just wants to toss out a few here and there to attempt to intimidate dog owners, move on to a trainer who can communicate the science to you in a manner that is easily accessible. As trainers, we must know the science forward and backward so that we can share it with dog owners, but we have to do it in a way that our dog-owning clients will understand.
I’m not going to detail the four quadrants of operant conditioning (positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment) here because there are many books on this topic (a good starting point is Jean Donaldson’s The Culture Clash). You can delve so deeply into the science that you obtain a PhD in applied animal behavior. Do you need a PhD to work with your family pet? Most of the time, you do not. When you do need more information or help for such cases as a biting dog or an extremely fearful dog, you can work with a veterinary behaviorist or a qualified, credentialed behavior expert to assist you. If you need the help of a professional, I urge you to begin your search for a truly qualified, force-free trainer for free with the Pet Professional Guild’s directory (www.petprofessionalguild.com).
To me, understanding the science behind dog training is often akin to being a human parent as far as our learning curve goes. Some things about being a good parent might be innate, such as looking lovingly into your newborn’s eyes. But parents need to learn how to do other things. I, for example, have no idea how to change a baby’s diaper. It seems simple, but it would terrify me to attempt it. How do I hold the young child’s head and neck safely? What do I use to clean the baby’s bottom? How do I prevent diaper rash? I do not innately know these things, and I would need to ask someone truly knowledgeable for advice about how to do them. The worst thing I could do for a vulnerable child is go onto an Internet forum or elsewhere and ask for advice from people I do not know. I don’t know if they even have any children, or, if they do, what qualifies them to give me advice. When I Google “how to change a baby’s diaper,” I get 1,850,000 responses! Are these responses from midwives? Psychologists? MDs? Taken to an extreme, I could literally be getting advice from child abusers.
The same is true in getting advice on training your dog. If you Google “aggressive dogs,” you will have to choose from 37 million results. I have read incredibly asinine animal-care suggestions, such as giving a dog bleach to “cure” parvovirus, online. People you don’t know and who are not veterinarians swear that it works. Others say that to teach a “stubborn” dog, you need to show him who is boss, even to the extreme of hanging the dog up by a painful prong collar and holding him in the air until he passes out. Giving bleach for parvo and strangling are abusive and do nothing to help your dog, but they do a lot to damage to your relationship with him. Why take the gamble?
There is no shame in getting help when you need to learn something. There is a lot of heartache in deciding to merely bumble your way through something for which you don’t have the skill set or knowledge to create the desired positive outcome. If you would not accept medical advice from someone without a medical degree (after all, the wrong advice could kill you), please don’t be gullible and accept advice about dog training from those who have no serious credentials or experience—that advice could literally kill your dog in the long run.
Here’s an intriguing question: could Pavlov have “un-rung the bell” with his lab dogs? In other words, could he have reversed the experiment and got the dogs to either ignore the bell or pair it with some other event or thing** after they had made the association that the bell means that food is on the way?
Annie is working with an adopted shelter dog named Gracie who was once unable to settle down in the car and barked at anything that moved outside of the car.
Thankfully, the answer is yes! And the answer is also it depends. We would be hard-pressed to change our reactive or aggressive dogs’ opinions about their triggers (other dogs, strangers, kids, bikes, etc.) if we could never un-ring the bell once it has been rung. The next chapter delves into how we un-ring the bell, what factors make me say “it depends,” and how you can work around those factors to help your dog.
* It is in the vernacular to say that Pavlov “rang a bell.” However, it is possible that he did not actually use a bell but instead used a buzzer, light, or electronic tone.
** Pavlov himself did, actually, un-ring the bell in his lab dogs in later experiments, although those are not nearly as well known as his first experiment.