Pretty much all dog training is based on some form of conditioning, either operant or classical. Since classical techniques tend to be less flashy (read: tedious and boring), most trainers choose to focus on operant ones. Kathy even admitted that while classical conditioning is a bit like watching paint dry, it's so incredibly powerful that it deserves to be the star once in awhile. And of course, Kathy did an amazing job giving classical conditioning the billing it deserves.
Both types of conditioning are built up over repetitions. The difference is that operant conditioning is about consequences, while classical conditioning is not. Operant conditioning seeks to influence the dog's behavior by pairing his actions with rewards like food. The dog only gets the food if he behaves in a certain way. By contrast, classical conditioning doesn't care about what the dog is doing at all- its only goal is to create a direct association between two stimuli. There is no behavioral criteria, and the dog gets the food no matter what he does or doesn't do.
Instead, classical conditioning focuses on the dog's feelings and his reflexes by repeatedly pairing a neutral stimulus with something that elicits a strong reaction from the dog. For example, if everytime a dog hears a bell he gets some food, he'll soon learn to expect some food whenever he hears a ringing sound. Classical conditioning can also be used to change a previously learned association, typically from bad to good. This is called counter-conditioning.
This form of conditioning is incredibly useful when working with fearful, reactive, anxious, or aggressive dogs, but is often poorly understood or glossed over. It does take a bit of time to do it right, and people often try to cut corners, or skip over it entirely. It's a shame, really, because if you can change a dog's feelings about something, the behavior will often change as a result. After all, if children are no longer scary, there's no need to lunge and growl at them, right?
The problem with classical conditioning is that it really doesn't hold up well for the long-term. Yes, you can create associations pretty easily, and you can even change associations with a bit more work, but classical conditioning is incredibly fickle. Unlike operant conditioning, where behavior can be maintained with intermittment rewards, classical conditioning can extinguish quickly if the association is not maintained.
This means that classical conditioning is not a holistic plan. It's simply too exhausting to continually maintain the pairing of scary thing=good thing. The person will get tired, or will screw up. It's also impractical to constantly have treats (or other good things) on you. Ultimately, Kathy said, you'll need to switch to an operant technique, whether that's CAT or BAT or Control Unleashed or whatever.
So why bother with classical conditioning at all? Why not just cut straight to the chase and use an operant strategy from the start? The biggest reason to do this is because most dogs with fear/reactivity/anxiety/aggression issues are okay... until they're not. And usually, once they're “not,” they've gone over threshold, and are now in that fight-or-flight mode where they can no longer think. Then it's too late. You can't teach the dog anything. You can't reinforce an acceptable behavior because the dog isn't physiologically capable of learning anymore. Operant conditioning becomes impossible.
So, you start at the beginning. You pair the sight of a trigger with good things, over and over again, no matter what the dog is doing, so that the dog no longer sees the trigger as a scary thing, but rather, as a thing which results in chicken. You'll know this association has happened when the dog gets demanding- he'll see the trigger, and instead of reacting, he'll be obnoxiously nudging your hand or staring at your chicken pocket. And since he wants that chicken so badly, it's pretty easy to ask him to do something to earn it.
In other words, what classical conditioning does is give you the foundation on which to build those operant behaviors. It helps your dog relax enough to think. It gives you enough time to intervene. It gives you the space you need to begin training the behaviors you want instead of constantly focusing on the ones you don't.
Of course, it's not as easy as I make it sound. If it was, Kathy wouldn't have been able to spend a full day discussing classical conditioning. Indeed, Kathy shared some really interesting- and important- tips to make the most of classical conditioning. If you're going to go through all that work, you might as well do it right! I'll share that info with you in the next post.
In the meantime, I'd love to hear from other people with reactive dogs. Did you do classical conditioning as a foundation? What was your experience like?