Classical conditioning & it’s positive reinforcement part and reward-based training method

Feb 19, 2017 |

As most of the things our dogs learn are based on associations, I am sure you would agree that developing positive ones would be everyone’s first choice – whether you want your dog to start liking the postman, make friends with the next-door neighbour, or stop chasing that crow… You can, and unfortunately are often encouraged by all the media, books and some odd “behavioural advice” to achieve this using all the “bossy-boots” principles, bullying and aversion techniques. And they do work, no doubt. But for some reason we all are keen on encouraging our kids to learn something new because it’s fun, but many tend to make the dogs work because “or else!” consequence. Happy associations work better, stronger, are much easier to administer and can do no harm even if applied wrongly. It is a “win-win” kind of training, and dogs trained with “happy” emotions are in general very positive dogs, looking forward to all sorts of experiences, be it being around kids, mixing with their own kind or assisting you when hoovering and so on. It is a beautiful process that warms my heart every time I work out the reinforcement schedule to conduct it.

I love the name the method is called, because the conditioning is truly “classical” here – any event, object or occurrence of the outside world can be made positive in the dog’s perception, desirable and therefore interesting and “happy”, once again. The term “counter-conditioning” means exactly that – your dog shrinks every time the motorcycle goes pass him – as a way to deal with that you find a place where you two are guaranteed to experience a vast amount of those encounters, say, a race truck, or a sidewalk off a busy fast road – and get on with attaching one thing to the other (easy in the beginning though!). Bike goes by – here’s your garlic sausage! And again, and so on, till the bike rolling out of the way causes that dog of yours to explode with anticipation of a reward, like –Mum, look, look, I found another one. Where’s my bit?

How long would you say this process can take? A day or two for a smart, pre-trained animal with clear understanding or “cause-effect” connection, and, perhaps, never, for someone who is not very good in organizing themselves and providing the resource for this type of training.

“I tried this Classical Conditioning a couple of times and it does not seem to work” – was one of the comments I heard during a seminar on motivational learning… Do we need to stop here? A couple of times? honestly? Well, you have wasted those two moments as nothing would work on such a short basis. A few hundred- and the dog would perhaps have a fairly clear idea of what is taking place. A few thousand – and the dog will also become fluent at it, confident and self-assured.

Another important principle to keep in mind is pacing yourself when building up for a specific behaviour. It carries a technical term – Desensitizing, and basically it means increasing the difficulty levels steadily, gradually and without getting over-ambitious and over-demanding. Some situations would overwhelm a dog, and would take forever to work out the logistics of them. But you drop your level or intensity of the exercise – and your dog gets it right away. And even though you slow down and “go back to kindergarten” at times, you still get there lots quicker due to the dog’s ability to understand the task and then progress through the stages quicker. Hard to believe, but a slow pace will take you there sooner!

Going back to the conditioning itself. What it means is attaching something irrelevant to something important for the dog to start with (conditioned stimulus to the unconditional one). A good example of a quick thing to teach your dog would be putting a chunk of food under a cone at the other end of the room -over and over again. Not even 5 minutes later your dog would happily go to the cone across the room expecting a kibble to be there. Stop putting the food there, but reward the dog by the end result – and the response to a specific command describing what to do is ready.

Please be sure to have the stimulant at the target location without any differentiation of whether he’s done the work or not – in Classical Conditioning / positive reinforcement training you let people coming into the house feed a dog irrespective of what it does (as long as it is safe for all the parties involved) and soon, guess what – the dog will be looking forward to seeing the visitors and “cashing in on it”. The unconditional (natural, pre-programmed into the system from birth, instinctive) stimulus has to be attached to the event, object (person) or a situation for a period of time and it is the amount of reinforcement that counts / matters, not the amount of food or the value of it strangely enough. And there’s an explanation to it too: each time the break-through, success of accomplishing the task results in the injection of endorphin into the system, making a dog feel the temporary “High” when coming across the challenge in question. And then again and again, and feeling happy relaxes, eases up a dog previously nervous, tense or reluctant to deal with it. And that amount of the “happy” hormone over a period of time is what we are after here. It is not you who teaches the dog, and not the stranger offering it tidbits. It is self-learning that is clicking into place providing the opportunity and effect of the experience have been organized by the handler / owner.

We will talk later about a completely different form of training or behavior modification, when your reward / praise is attached to the dog’s correct response to the stimulant / situation etc. For now we just need to start somewhere – happy training to you both! And it is prone to go well as there’s just no scope for the upsets and negatives – we are training the dog with “good boy” procedures, wherever you go and whatever you do, so it is happy. And there’s just no such thing as being TOO happy!


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