Category Archives: Classical Conditioning – Theory

Pavlovian conditioning is not well understood, even though it occurs in All Operant conditioning.

Santa Claus

Santa Claus and kids

Santa-eop2Imagine you’re a small child.  You’ve heard the following all your young life:

1. Don’t take Candy from Strangers

2. Don’t talk to Strangers


One day you go to the mall.  Everything is different; garlands and bells are all over the place.  Everything is out of place and weird music blares instead of lulling muzak.

Then… trusted adults urge you to go with a person looking like Peter Pan (that guy steals children!).  He/she leads you to a man in obvious disguise – that beard is SO FAKE (and maybe he smells a little like stale cigarettes and/or booze).  Then… he offers presents!!!

Your reaction?  Much like many other children during their first picture with Santa Claus.  Full on crying.  This guy is terrifying!

After a year or two, what happens?  Mall dressing, and Santa Claus are precursors to what?  Some of your favourite things; Grandma and Grandpa coming to visit, the food; or, more likely, boat loads of presents.  Santa Claus predicts Christmas.  Seeing this man has now turned your feelings from abject terror to the warm fuzzies.

Now you just have to worry about those clowns….

Santa Claus for Dogs

Classical (counter)Conditioning and Desensitization are important in dealing with fear or otherwise upset dogs.  Diminishing upsetting emotions often eliminates “bad” behaviour in these dogs.  Unlike suppressing the behaviour; akin to smacking a child when they are on Santa’s knee crying.  They might stop crying, but isn’t going to make them feel any better about Santa — now Santa may mean abuse, or that fear might transfer to the person who slapped them, or candy, or muzak…..

Fear is hard to eliminate.  Time and high magnitude positive associations are required.  People with fear of insects are constantly bombarded with insects; kids are only bombarded with Santa Claus once a year.  Insects are creepy crawly and icky with no redeeming qualities (don’t bother trying to convince someone afraid of bugs of all their benefits).  Santa Claus, although a strange man in disguise tempting children with goodies, brings exactly that – goodies, presents, chocolate and/or family.

To turn garbage trucks into Santa Claus, you could ask the truck to stop and let the dog rummage in the garbage; not a good idea on so many levels.  So we play Santa Claus.   Distant garbage truck noise and visibility are like decorations; not scary, but present.  Close proximity to the garbage truck?  Entering the gates of Hades.  Rearrange things so noise and visibility means a flow of chicken/steak/stinky cheese starts (Here comes Santa Claus!)  — “maybe this thing isn’t so bad if it means a smorgasbord.”  Garbage trucks will mean Santa Claus (with enough repetitions and careful timing).

Difficulty of Santa Claus

Simple sits and other basic obedience behaviours could be considered preschool or Kindergarten level (1 or 2 out of 10).  Some basic impulse control exercises – stay, wait, leave it –  might be grade school.  Complex tricks, sports or other activities may be high school or even university level.  Dealing with emotions can easily be PhD level (9+ out of 10).

Living with fear can’t be pleasant.  Modifying fear is  best attempted under the care (or help) of competent, skilled and steady nerved professionals.  Make sure your trainer understands how a dogs upsetting emotions may be affecting their behaviour.  Fixing the emotion (fear of Santa Claus) can lessen the behaviour (crying).

No One Way To Train Dogs.

Positive Training Myth
Positive Training is not “one type”.

Dog owners, and even novice trainers are often befuddled by all the information about on dog training.  The Science is Misdirected, obfuscated or misunderstood.  Some professionals doll out the misinformation as fact.  A lot of solid, scientifically sound information often getting overrun by the din of the poor.  One of these misunderstandings is over one single line; “There is no one way to train dogs.”  The implication being one group of trainers uses only one method to train dogs, while the other side uses all methods.   While Force Free and/or Positive Training (FF/PT) methods suggest only use of one method available in modern dog training, in practice and theory, Balanced Training seems to use only a small sliver of available tools used in 21st century dog training.

Modern Dog Training

Previous centuries did use the science of Training, but not with the nomenclature of the science.  Folk knowledge was passed from generation to generation.  Modern dog training uses Operant Conditioning (“If I do X, then I get/avoid Y.”) and Classical Conditioning (“If X happens, then Y follows”).  Also available and understood by good practitioners is management (enuring dogs can’t rehearse undesired behaviours) and antecedent arrangement (ie. ensuring the environment isn’t overpowering training).  They are not always mutually exclusive.

Management and Antecedent arrangement are often fundamental to make Operant conditioning work well.  Not removing chances to perform old “bad” behaviours and not dealing with competing motivations sets the dog up for failure.  Asking compulsive gamblers to attend gamblers anonymous meetings in the middle of a crowded casino is a recipe for failure.  Asking a chronic shoe chewer to play with a different toy while a flock of shoes is around is also a recipe for failure.  Throwing an arachnophe into a dense, spider filled jungle, without preparation before hand, is a recipe for failure.  Making a dog encounter a stressor to stop a reaction is a recipe for failure.

Classical conditioning always occurrs in the background of operant conditioning – (“Pavlov is always sitting on your shoulder.” – Bob Bailey).    Ask a dog to do something; they get it right, and get a good thing starts adjusting emotional states positively.  They begin to think the asking means something good will happen.  The opposite is aslo true.  If asked, they don’t perform, and something bad happens, association with that bad thing can occur (or sometimes with the person asking, or some other thing in the environment – fear is fickle!).  Understanding science helps counter these effects or use them advantageously.

The Divide

Good, competent Force Free/Positive Reinforcement practitioners use all of these mentioned and understand when to use one over another.  They do not rely on just one portion or method.  They do however, avoid the use of aversives in operant conditioning.  Meaning they do not employ or avoid fear, intimidation or pain.  Mostly this is an ethical choice, and increasingly is being backed by solid, current science; although pain and fear may work, the side effects can be to detrimental, and are avoided.

Balanced training uses operant conditioning.  Whether just by the use of the associated language, misunderstanding of scientific fact, or from lack of knowledge,  little outward acknowledgement of other  modern training principles.  When dealing with most aggression, the answer is “deal with the behaviour.”  “If we don’t do X, the dog will die”/”If we don’t use X, we won’t get a good recall”  In order to fix the behaviour, they need the behaviour to happen.  This means putting the dog into stressful situations, then correcting the dog;  corrections often of an aversive, punitive nature.  “Pavlov is always sitting on your shoulder” here means dogs can potentially associate  aversives with the trainer, the stressful trigger, or something completely unrelated instead of the actual behaviour.  This does not mean that balanced trainers do not use food, fun, play to achieve some of their goals.  They seem to use operant conditioning without apparent consideration of the possible side effects.  Arguments against management and antecedent arrangements  are often prevalent in balanced training.


“You can’t arrange real life” is sometimes true; but as much as possible practitioners can seek out situations where arrangement is possible until the dog understands – then the situations become manageable by the dog in time.  Learning how to deal with a problem with more than one tool available is what any good trainer in the future will do.  There are times when management is necessary, and sometimes the only recourse such as walking a truly aggressive dog with a poor mouth only with a muzzle.  Trying to deal with just the aggression, with no management is poor, and dangerous, practice.  Arrangement ensures success is more likely with both operant and classical methods.

Eliminating aversives does not make operant conditioning weaker, but increases the potential welfare of the animal by eliminating negative shifts in emotional states.

What does it all mean then?

You take yourself to the doctor.  She mentions that the cut in your arm is infected.  She elects and strongly encourages amputation!  This will ensure that the infection doesn’t spread.  You will be back at work in a few days with no other physical harm.  Antibiotics or possible psychological effects are mentioned. We all know that this is silly, but the analogy is not far off from what some people experience.

A broad base approach proves there is only one way to train dogs – Force Free and Positive Reinforcement Training currently, while a narrower approach encompasses dangers and potential negative welfare states for dogs.  Systematic, scientifically sound training with standard procedures for the most common behaviour modification is essential.  Eliminating, or managing potentially harmful outcomes increases positive welfare states.

Trainers become trainers partly because they want to be good to dogs.  Lacking correct, science based learning though, this can be corrupted or misused.  When this happens, welfare can  suffer; counter to what was actually intended in the first place!

So what are owners to do?  Ask questions.  Make sure clear, concise answers are given.   Something akin to this.    Currently no legal regulatory body governing exists for dog trainers; anyone can hang out a shingle and do nearly anything to your dog.  Advocate for your dog; if you don’t like what is happening, or you wouldn’t practice that way yourself or on any other animal or child, stop the training.