Dogs are constantly forming emotional associations that inform their decisions. Is it safe, unsafe, dangerous, good, bad or neutral ? This associative learning is also called classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning, named after Ivan Pavlov, the Russian scientist who accidentally discovered that dogs learn through association.
All animals learn through classical conditioning, all the time. Some associations can be quite helpful or simply benign. For example, if a dog enters the Ottawa Canine School for the first time and I offer him a fun toy to play with, the dog will likely associate the training school as a safe, good and fun place.
The exciting thing about classical conditioning is that we can manipulate a dog’s associations to things. We can use classical conditioning to teach a puppy to enjoy being groomed by creating a positive association with the grooming tools. We show the puppy the nail clipper and then offer the puppy yummy treats. After several repetitions, the nail clipper will become the predictor of yummy treats.
Some associations, however, can be harmful. A dog may associate a certain object, smell, person or animal with an unpleasant experience. Take the common leash for example. It can either elicits jumps of joy if the dog has associated it with fun walks in the fresh air, or it can be a frightening object for the dog who has associated it with corrections or with being tied up outside on his own.
A few years ago I worked with a dog who was home alone when the house alarm went off. A few beeps turned into sirens blasting throughout the house. The dog, in a state of frenzy, attempted to eat his way out of the house. The beeps preceded the terrifying noises and just like that, the association was made. Beeping sounds were scary, dangerous and unsafe.
The couple could no longer set their alarm before leaving the house because of the beeping it made when they pushed the buttons. It was not only their house alarm that was a problem – the beeping sound of a car being locked or unlocked, a microwave announcing the meal was ready, the beeps of an oven being pre-heated, the reminder that the fridge door wasn’t closed properly would make this dog anxious and stressed.
It is harder to teach an animal that experiences fear, stress and anxiety new behaviours. We must change the animals’ emotional state first, before asking for a different behaviour. If a dog is too distraught, it cannot control its behaviour.
It isn’t as simple as using treats to help the dog form positive associations.
In the case of the dog who had developed a negative emotional response to beeping sounds, we could not simply just feed him treats while the beeping happens. We started with the dog outside and far from the house, while the alarm was being set. This allowed the dog to have some distance from the noise. The beeping came first, then the extra yummy treats appeared. After many repetitions, the dog could be closer to the noise. Eventually, the beeping becomes the predictor of the extra special treats.
In order to change the association, the order in which things happen is important. The neutral or scary thing must be presented first, without provoking a fearful response from the dog. Then, the yummy treat is presented. This order matters. If you present the yummy treat before the scary thing, your dog may develop an unpleasant association to the treat.
Fear not, you are not going to reinforce the unwanted behaviour, by offering your dog treats. The goal is to change the emotional response, which is no easy feat since emotions are beyond the animal’s control.
Trainers with a solid understanding of learning theory are able to creatively and humanely influence dog behaviours.