Thursday, March 31, 2011

It's Okay to Say No

I've been around this block before, 
both literally and figuratively.

Now that the weather's nicer, Maisy and I are starting to encounter other people while we're out on walks. I wouldn't mind this except it presses the issue: do I let people greet her?

When Maisy was younger, I allowed it. For one thing, I was a bit too Minnesota Nice to say no, and besides, it was good socialization, right? As I became more dog-savvy, I started to realize that Maisy didn't particularly like to say hi. My trainer taught me the importance of protecting my dog, and so I started to say no. In fact, I learned to be downright rude if need be, holding up my hand like a traffic cop and loudly saying “STOP!”

Since Maisy's been on medication, though, her reactions have changed. She's seemed more social. She's been fine around scary dudes and unfamiliar dogs. As a result, I've been watching her body language and making greeting decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Last week this was put to the test... and I think I failed. Here's what happened: Maisy and I were out for a walk. She was in high spirits and pretty exuberant. A group of pre-teens was walking towards us, and when our paths met, one was clearly interested in meeting her. For her part, Maisy was soft and wiggly, leaning towards him inquisitively, and so I allowed him to pat her.

Maisy was not pleased. She squealed and rushed away, tail tucked between her legs. I felt awful. How could I have read her so wrong?

In truth, I don't think I did. I think she just expected something else. The young boy did everything wrong- he leaned over her, trying to pet her on the head- but he didn't know that dogs don't like that. The average person has no idea how scary this is to a dog. Maisy may have wanted to say hi, but she didn't want to say hi to a rude primate.

I should have been proactive and told him how to greet her. I should have asked him to kneel sideways, let her sniff his palm, and then stroke her chest. But it all happened so fast that I didn't have time. It wasn't Maisy's fault, it wasn't the boy's fault, and it wasn't even my fault, not really.

Still, it was my responsibility, and I failed. I'm kind of glad I did, though, because after I got over my initial feelings of shame and guilt, it helped me figure out how to answer people when they ask, “Can I pet your dog?” I'm not going to squirrel her away in a protective bubble, never allowed to meet anyone. I don't think that's any healthier than forcing her to greet everyone we cross paths with. But I can't count on her to tell me when it's okay, and I certainly can't count on the general public to know how interact with dogs politely. From here on out, my rule is that if Maisy's on leash, she will only greet people that I know are dog-savvy. If she's off leash, she can greet people if she chooses, but I won't ask her to. She can approach- or not- by her own free will.

In other words, I realized that it's okay to say no. It's okay to say no to the people who want to say hi, it's okay to say no to Maisy's wiggly body language, and it's okay to say no to myself when I wish that she could greet strangers. I don't have a normal dog, after all, and you know what? That is okay, too.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Ken Ramirez- Aggression Treatment and Context, Part 2

In part one of my summary on Ken Ramirez's talk on aggression, we discussed aggression in general. Today, I'll tell you what he said about treating aggression, starting with generalities, and moving on to specific treatments.

Ken said that you can organize all of the various techniques by placing each one into one of three categories: broad scientific approaches to learning, scientific principles, and practical procedures.

The first category, broad scientific approaches, refers to the twin concepts of learning theory: classical conditioning, and operant conditioning. I call them “twin” because, as Ken pointed out, while we can choose to focus on just one of these two approaches, “all animals learn both ways all the time.” As the old saying goes, you have Skinner on one shoulder and Pavlov on the other.

The second category is made up of the various scientific principles which have been developed in the experimental lab. Each one generally falls under either classical conditioning or operant conditioning. Under classical conditioning, we have things such as habituation, flooding, and counter-conditioning. Under operant conditioning, we have both methods that provide consequences to behavior (punishment and reinforcement), as well as redirection techniques (the Differential Reinforcement of Alternative behaviors).

Finally, our third category is made up of the practical applications and strategies borne out of one or more of these scientific approaches. Each of these techniques is “a way that a skilled and talented trainer has operationalized the science to deal with aggression.” They typically have components of both classical and operant conditioning.

Okay, let's dive into some of the specific approaches out there. This is not meant to be an all-inclusive list, but it does include some of the more common ways people respond to and deal with aggression.

Positive Punishment
Using pain or fear to “correct” aggression is a method that people often think of instinctively, probably because it's how parents, teachers, coaches, and yes, by dog trainers have responded for centuries. Done correctly, punishment works, however there are risks, challenges, and fallout to using punishment... including aggression. Seeing as how we were at Clicker Expo, Ken did not discuss punishment in depth, other than to say that trainers should understand how and when to use it. Although trainers should not throw punishment out of the toolbox altogether, they should allow that toolbox to remain on the top shelf, collecting dust.

Classical Conditioning
Falling in the category of broad scientific approaches, and having no real specialized names or operational procedures, classical conditioning is often one of the first tools skilled trainers use. Ironically, it is also the one that inexperienced ones often overlook. This is a mistake; classical conditioning, that is, changing the dog's associations to his triggers, is powerful even if it seems simplistic. Seems is the key word here; in practice, classical conditioning requires thoughtful implementation since you need to keep the dog below his threshold. Though simple, it is easy to screw up if you don't understand the science.

Look at That (LAT)
This technique was developed by Leslie McDevitt and described in her book, Control Unleashed. LAT uses a cue to tell the dog to look at a trigger in order to get rewarded. This changes the dog's associations with his trigger, and is thus largely a classical procedure, albeit one with a strong operant component. It is useful prior to a dog having a reaction to a trigger, and is quite versatile as it can be used in many situations. However, it must be trained in advance so that it can be used sub-threshold. It is not a complete strategy in itself and must be used in conjunction with other tools.

Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT)
CAT was developed by Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and Kellie Snider. It is a negative reinforcement procedure which rewards the dog for appropriate behavior by having the trigger (human or canine) leave. It tends to work incredibly fast because it treats the root source of the problem- the dog's desire for distance. It is also highly controversial because it exposes the dog to his trigger for long periods of time. Still, Ken feels it's a useful technique when exposure to the trigger is unavoidable on a regular basis. It requires a very skilled trainer who can set up the situation correctly and direct the trigger to leave at precisely the right moment. It is also not right for every dog as it will only work when you have a thorough understanding of both the specific trigger and context in which aggression occurs. It won't work for a dog whose triggers “stack.”

Click to Calm
Emma Parson's book Click to Calm lays out an easy-to-follow program that relies primarily on redirection techniques such as the differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors, other behaviors, or lower intensity behaviors, but also capitalizes on classical conditioning. What all that scientific mumbo-jumbo means is that the trainer shapes the absence of aggression by clicking the dog when the dog's aggressive display lessens even slightly. This is a highly useful approach because, unlike other techniques, it can be used when the dog is over threshold. However, this does mean that you are clicking the dog for acting aggressively, even if it is for a reduction in aggression. It is also time-consuming and can be difficult for the unskilled trainer. Still, done well, Ken believes it can be a permanent fix.

Training an Incompatible Behavior
This encompasses a broad group of behaviors, including such techniques as “watch me” (where the dog looks at the handler instead of the trigger), U-turns (where the dog is cued to turn and go in the opposite direction away from a trigger), and recalls or whiplash turns (where the dog immediately returns to the handler). Although the behavior itself is different in each case, the goal is the same: to teach the dog something to do instead of being aggressive. If it's trained well, the dog will respond automatically, giving the trainer a chance to intervene and prevent aggression. Unfortunately, it doesn't change the underlying cause, and thus won't cure aggression. It should be followed up by other methods. 

Abandonment Training
Popularized by Trish King, abandonment training is a very specialized tool useful only for dogs whose aggression revolves around their owners. In abandonment training, the dog is on both a leash and a long line. The owner walks holding the leash, and a secondary handler holds on to the long line for safety considerations. When the dog behaves inappropriately, the owner drops the leash and leaves. In scientific terms, this is negative punishment- bad behavior makes the owner go away. Although effective, as noted, it's only effective for a small handful of dogs.

Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT)
Created by Grisha Stewart, BAT has taken the positive training world by storm. Ken really glossed over it since he isn't terribly familiar with it (he's tried at least some version of all the other techniques presented, but hasn't tried BAT yet). All he really said is that it's a negative reinforcement technique that he feels is effective.

These are not all of the ways to deal with aggression, but it is representative of the types of approaches out there. Ken said there isn't any one technique that is the answer to every aggression problem or every situation, which is why new methods are being created all the time. If you are trying to decide if a particular technique would be useful for your dog, you should learn everything you can about it first. Understand the science so you can recognize how it works and compare it to other approaches. Then, decide if it's a good fit with your dog's training history, type of trigger (is it predictable? Controllable?), specific circumstances which provoke the response, the level of risk or danger to all involved, your own experience level (and remember, Ken thinks aggression should be treated by professionals, not the average pet owner), and your own personal ethics.

Personally, I've used Look at That a lot, as well as general counter-conditioning. I've done some work with incompatible behaviors, and although that won't cure the problem, it does allow me to interrupt Maisy before things get out of hand. Maisy is not a candidate for CAT (her triggers stack too much), and her veterinary behaviorist did not think BAT would be a good fit for her, either. Likewise, Click to Calm and Abandonment Training really aren't suited to Maisy, and my ethics do not allow for punishment.

Okay, it's your turn: if you have a reactive or aggressive dog, which approaches have you tried? Did they work? If not, why do you think that was?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Ken Ramirez- Aggression Treatment and Context, Part 1

I knew from the moment I saw the course schedule that I wanted to attend this session. Not only has my life with Maisy sparked an interest in behavior modification by sheer necessity, but I was also interested in it because it was taught by Ken Ramirez, the senior vice-president of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Friends who have attended his seminars in the past have raved about him, so the combination of “I want to see that speaker” and “I want to learn more about that topic” made this session a no-brainer for me.

I wasn’t disappointed. A review of the various treatments for aggression could have been dull and dry, but Ken made it fascinating. He’s an energetic, engaging speaker, and he peppered his talk with interesting anecdotes and illustrative video clips. Not only was I so engrossed in his presentation that the time just flew by, but it was also packed with great information. In fact, it was so good that there’s just no way that I can summarize it in just one post. Today’s post will discuss aggression in general, and the next one will focus on his assessment of specific treatments.

For the purposes of his talk, Ken defined aggression as a broad category of behaviors that includes any type of unwanted agonistic behavior. Some examples of this include reactivity (barking, growling, lunging), resource guarding, possessive or protective behavior, and biting. Further, Ken said that all dogs (all animals) have aggressive repertoires. Aggression serves a vital purpose in animal culture: sick dogs will behave aggressively out of self-defense, while mothers will do so to defend their young. It's an evolutionary strategy, a coping mechanism, and therefore, all dogs are capable of being aggressive.

So why do some dogs act aggressively and others don't? Ken identified three main reasons. First, we have the dogs who are reacting to a bad circumstance- they're trapped and have no choice. Second, we have dogs who are genetically predisposed to aggression. And third, some dogs actually learn to be aggressive. Either they accidentally got reinforced for growling or biting, or it was purposefully taught to them. Often, aggression occurs through single-event learning: they try it as a strategy, and either found it highly rewarding or it failed miserably, thus determining whether or not they do it again.

All of this means that every one, every single dog owner, should have an aggression reduction strategy in place in advance of a possible issues. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I'll do if Maisy growls or lunges so that I'm prepared to react appropriately; I'm sure all of you with reactive or aggressive dogs have. But... what about those of you with the so-called normal dogs? Do you have an aggression reduction strategy in place? You should. Since all dogs have an aggressive repertoire to draw upon, it's those of you with the low-key dogs that will be most surprised if and when it eventually comes out. Since aggression can be learned in a single trial, your reaction in that unexpected moment matters.

With that in mind, let's talk about the five rules of aggression reduction.
  1.  Understand the scenarios. All dog owners should know when a situation might be uncomfortable for their dog, and thus could potentially result in aggression.
  2. Be able to recognize the precursors to aggression. Know how both your species (that is, dogs in general), and your individual animal reacts when he's upset. Learn his body language and his vocalizations, such as growling, and do not punish your dog for giving a warning.
  3. Use redirection or apply the appropriate training strategy when needed.We'll cover some of these in the next post.
  4. Stop or avoid it before it starts. Absolutely do not allow a dog to practice the bad behavior. The old saying is right: practice makes perfect. Do not allow your dog to learn that aggression works.
  5. Finally, keep good records. You'll need them to help you track progress as well as to evaluate if you're on the right track. If the records show little improvement, you may need to try another approach.
I would argue that there is actually a sixth rule, and that is: Don't try this at home! You see, Ken feels very strongly that aggression should be treated by advanced trainers only. This is partially because he believes that trainers should have a thorough understanding of their chosen technique and the science behind it, and partially because it simply requires a tremendous amount of skill to do well. Failure to meet either of these criteria will likely result in the poor implementation of any treatment, and with it, an undesired result. What’s more, this often results in unfounded criticism or senseless controversy over a perfectly valid approach.

Therefore, a beginner- the general pet owner with an aggressive dog- should not be doing this on their own. They need a professional who can diagnose the aggression, its cause, and the triggers. This is important because not all treatments are equal, and the treatment used should be tailored to the specific dog. This isn't to say that you need to send the dog off to boot camp- on the contrary, I would never do that. It simply means that you should have a qualified professional coaching you.

I have to admit, Ken's adamant stance really made me question some of the stuff I've written on my blog. I know that many people simply can't afford to hire a professional, so I've tried to create some free resources for people who struggle with dogs like my own. But Ken made me question if I should be doing this. Since he said that no one technique is right for all dogs, should I be writing about this method or that method without making it clear which dogs it's suited for? For that matter, do I even know which dogs are well suited to certain techniques? Having heard Ken speak, I guess I have a better idea now, but even so, without having seen the dog in question, how can I possibly recommend a particular approach?

I can’t, of course, but I still believe that it’s important to share information whenever possible, with the caution that one should always consult with a professional. Some people are going to do it themselves no matter what, and if so, it’s better if they have scientifically-sound and dog-friendly methods available to them.

Still, even though I often encourage people to hire a professional, Ken's seminar has inspired me to explain why a professional is a good thing. There are so many different ways to work with aggression, and each technique is better suited to different types of aggression than others. I'll talk about this in my next entry, but in the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts. How do you respond to people on email lists or dog forums? Do you give advice? Refer them to a book? Have you thought about whether or not that information is appropriate for that particular dog, or are you simply sharing what's worked for you? Let me know!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

I think it's time...

I have a friend who calls her dog “recovering reactive.” I like that term. It's a nice nod to the past while simultaneously acknowledging the progress her dog has made. Despite this, I have never felt comfortable claiming the label as our own; I didn't feel that Maisy was at the point where I could call her “recovering.”

Well, I think it's time.

First, she relaxed in class. Then, she realized that dudes really aren't that bad. Plus, who can forget her laid back evening with a pack of dogs and a bunch of people?

And now? Well, today she was awesome.

It started out with a trip to the vet for her annual exam. We walked in, and there were three very fiesty Westies in the waiting room, barking their fool heads off and straining on their leashes towards us. Maisy glanced over at them, wagged her tail softly, and then smiled at me. We walked up to the front desk on a loose leash, and she sat by my side, still wagging softly, her eyes barely leaving my face. We went into the exam room, and Maisy laid down at my feet while we waited for the doctor. She continued to be calm and relaxed throughout the appointment, even when she had a bunch of blood drawn.

I was proud of how she'd done, and if the day had ended there, I would have been quite happy with her behavior. But it didn't end there. On the way home, I stopped to see a friend at a conformation show. I left Maisy in the car, and when I returned to check on her, I was happy to find her pretty relaxed. Although I hadn't planned to bring Maisy in- she'd had quite the day already with those Westies, after all- when I got her out to stretch her legs, she pulled me to a mud puddle and began drinking out of it. I decided we'd best go inside to get a drink of (clean) water.

We walked past this:

And down this hall:

And the whole time, she was gently wagging her tail and smiling at me. I even carried a full bowl of water in my leash hand without spilling any! If you saw her, you'd never know she was reactive. We weren't inside for very long, but still- that was a pretty overwhelming environment for Maisy, and she had to walk right by several big dogs

I was so, so proud of her. In fact, I was so proud that I think my friend got tired of me saying, “But she walked past all this! And she was calm!” Meanwhile, Maisy was out in the car for another couple of hours, still pretty relaxed when I returned. Wow.

So, that whole reactive label? It's a thing of the past. From now on, I will think of Maisy as a recovering reactive dog. I think it's time.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Karen Pryor- Punishment and the Public

The very first session of the weekend was the opening plenary session with Aaron Clayton and Karen Pryor. To say that I was excited to see, hear, and meet one of the pioneers of clicker training is putting it mildly. I was downright thrilled.

Me, Karen Pryor, and my friend Sara.

If I'm honest, though, this was the most disappointing session of the entire weekend. Not because of what Karen had to say, but because it was too short! We only had an hour for the entire plenary, and in that time, we were welcomed, given an overview of the conference, and reminded of dog etiquette. This left her with about 15 minutes to speak, which simply wasn’t enough. I wanted more!

Still, I can’t complain about the content, because it was excellent. She had a dense power point presentation, rich in information, and although rushed, she did a wonderful job presenting it. Next time, I’ll be sure to make it to one of her full sessions. (One of my friends went to her session on creativity in animals, and her recap was fascinating. Perhaps she’ll do a guest blog? Hint, hint, Sara.)

So. Punishment and the public. Karen shared that one of the great difficulties in getting people to cross over to clicker training is that the clicker is a relatively new technology. It is based on scientific principles developed over the past 50-100 years, as compared to the more traditional techniques that have been around for thousands of years. It's the way it's always been done, the way our parents trained dogs, and the way their parents did, and their parents... That's a lot of time to overcome.

Further, the old methods are “method based,” by which she means they feel natural. They are much more dependent on instinct and reflexive action. It is akin to the so-called “whispering.” In comparison, the new technology of clicker training is what she calls “principle based.” This means that it requires the trainer to think and plan since it is based on science. As a result, it can be a bit more challenging at first.

Of course, learning how to use the clicker is worth it. As Aaron put it, positive reinforcement results in lasting learning. While we can engineer motivation through punishment and fear, it's much harder to sustain over the long-term than motivation that is based on willing partnership and cooperation. Notice that this promotion of clicker training is based on results, not any sense of moral superiority. This really hit me hard- I'm positive trainer because it “feels” better, but at best, that’s not a very convincing argument, and at worst, it’s judgmental and alienating.

In fact, not a single presentation I saw discussed the ethical implications of using the clicker over punishment-based methods. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the “discussions” about training methods on the internet. What I’ve learned from them is that many, many people believe that the ends justify the means- the “red zone dogs” need rehabilitation, and using corrections works (at least temporarily). The problem, as Karen put it, is that the public accepts punishment. This makes sense- we live in a punishment-based society, after all. So with this in mind, just what is a clicker trainer to do?

First, Karen said that we need to give up punishing the punishers. Don't get into conflicts with others about methods. Arguing and lecturing rarely succeeds in changing someone's mind, and usually just firms their resolve. Who hasn’t seen those internet discussions devolve into name-calling? Therefore, instead of treating people like adversaries, we need to treat them as fellow learners and communicate the benefits of modern training with them.

We need to educate people on the fallout that can come with punishment based methods. There has been some evidence in recent years that confrontational training methods can create or worsen aggression in our dogs. Thus, avoiding the use of punishment isn't so much a moral issue as a valuable training approach. (Beyond the issue of fallout, I think that Kathy Sdao gave the most convincing reason to avoid using corrections, but you'll just have to wait to hear about that.) Talk about the benefits of the clicker, too. It's a powerful, precise tool.

Beyond simply educating, though, we need to “shape alternatives to misbehavior.” No, not in our dogs (well, yes, in our dogs, too), but in our students, our spouses, our selves. Think of mistakes as TAG points, not correction points. TAGging means positively reinforcing people when they do things right. Sound familiar? It should- it's basically clicker training for humans. TAG points are the things we want people to do, so if you're trying to get someone to stop giving collar corrections, instead of nagging them when they get it wrong, tell them to keep the leash loose (or to use a hands-free belt, or to keep the leash hand firmly by their side, or whatever makes sense), and praise them when they do that!

Be sure to break behaviors down. Splitting criteria into achievable units works with people, too. Better, perhaps, than trying to get them to change all at once! Work on one skill at a time. Make behavior change easy for that person to attain. I don’t think that crossing over to clicker training has to be an all-or-nothing proposition. If someone wants to be more positive in their training methods, do it piece by piece.

And here's the thing: it's already happening. Twenty or thirty years ago, the use of any treats at all in training was frowned upon. It simply wasn't done. Now? Almost every trainer I know that uses corrections also uses treats. It's even got a label- balanced training.

So go out. Be positive. And don’t forget that it's about more than just our dogs. It's about our relationships with friends and family, with co-workers, with people we barely know, and with ourselves. Be positive. Focus on what you want. Or, to use Karen’s words, change the world one click at a time.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Overview

Before the opening session.

You guys, it was awesome. I'm no stranger to dog seminars, but Clicker Expo was beyond my wildest imagination. I was excited to learn a lot, and I totally did (you guys will be sick of Clicker Expo posts by the time I'm done), but it was so much more than that.

That sense of community was just as awesome as the lectures I attended. There were 425 people in attendance from all over the country, even all over the world. More than that, though, these were my people- clicker trainers. There were dogs everywhere (I believe the official number was somewhere around 125), and I did not see a single collar correction. I didn't hear anyone yelling at their dog. There weren't even disappointed sighs or expressions of frustration.

 A very typical sight- dogs everywhere!

I did see a ton of cookies handed out. I heard a lot of clicks and yes-es and praise. And there were tons of adoring looks, on the parts of both the dogs and the handlers. It was clear that these were strong relationships, canine-human teams that truly cared about one another.

The infamous Layla herself.
The positivity didn't stop with the dogs, though. Everywhere I went, I truly felt like I was among friends. I met people that were complete strangers, but who felt like old friends. Of course, it helped that the name tags told me that I knew many of them from the internet- from blogs and email lists. (Special shout out to blog-reader Marsha!)

Looking down the main hallway.

This atmosphere was undoubtedly aided by the tag tickets that were handed out like candy. In everyone's registration packet, there was a bunch of raffle tickets. You wrote your name and phone number on them, and then handed them out to people when they did something you liked. That person also wrote their name and number on them, and then put them in a drawing for door prizes. Both tagger and taggee would get a prize. I didn't win anything, but I didn't care. I had so much fun giving and receiving the tags that it didn't matter. I tagged people who asked good questions, who talked to me, who wore cool boots. I got tagged over and over again for my enthusiasm. And was I ever enthusiastic (perhaps even bordering on obnoxious)! I talked to people, I handed out my blog cards (a business card with a picture of Maisy and I, and our blog address), and I squealed. A lot.

Kathy Sdao TAGGED me!!

And of course, there were the presenters- Big Name Trainers whose books I've read, whose work I've admired. I shared an elevator with Karen Pryor! I ran into Emma Parsons in the hallway. I scared Ken Ramirez with my enthusiasm. I met (and subsequently stalked) Kathy Sdao. I felt a bit self-conscious, but I got my picture taken with a lot of them. They were all so nice and friendly. Lovely, lovely people.

The only part of Clicker Expo that I didn't like was having to choose between sessions. I mean, how do you choose between Ken Ramirez, Kay Laurence and Kathy Sdao? Seriously, how? The good thing is that there were no wrong choices. Although I was very sad to miss out on certain sessions, I didn't regret anything I attended. Every single session had at least one nugget of brilliance that made it worth attending.

Outside the Clicker Expo store- my kind of shopping!

I went for the sessions, but I'll return for the community. My husband and I have agreed that we both want to go next year. January's expo is supposed to be in Portland, and March's location hasn't been decided yet. I'm not sure it matters- we've already kicked around the idea of saving up and flying, no matter where it is.

That was the surprising part- how much Brian enjoyed it. He's working on a guest post on his perspective of Clicker Expo, which I'm excited to read. I am also working on posts for all the sessions I attended, including:

Karen Pryor: Punishment and the Public
Ken Ramirez: Aggression Treatment and Context- Part 1, Part 2
Kathy Sdao: You're in Great Shape!
Cecilie Koste: Top OTCh
Kathy Sdao: What a Cue Can Do (lecture and lab)- Part 1, Part 2
Cecilie Koste: Efficient Training
Helix Fairweather: Accelerating Success with Data Driven Training
Kay Laurence: Raising Criteria
Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh: Let's Make Some Noise! (Building Confidence)
Kathy Sdao: The All-Seeing I
Patricia McConnell: Emotions and Our Dogs

Finally, just let me say that it was an amazing experience, and if you ever get the chance, you should go. It was absolutely worth the time and the money, and I can't wait for next year!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

See You Next Week!

In just a few hours, we'll be on our way to Chicago for Clicker Expo! "We" as in my husband and I (why yes, I do have the best husband ever, thank you very much), not "we" as in Maisy and I. Maisy will be staying with some fabulous family for the weekend, but can I just say how unfair it is that I'm going to a huge dog conference without my dog? I miss her already, and I haven't even dropped her off yet!

We will be back very late Sunday night, and then I have to turn around and promptly go off to a social work conference Monday morning, so it’ll probably be a week or so until I can update again. But when I do, you can be assured that it will be with my usual in-depth seminar posts. If you’re lucky, I’ll even be able to talk my husband into a doing a guest post or two.

In the meantime, feel free to check out my Facebook page. I’m planning on giving mini-updates there throughout the weekend. Otherwise, I’ll see you next week with the full report!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Learning Theory 101: Extinction

In my post on operant conditioning, I mentioned that one of the possible (though rare) consequences for a behavior is that nothing happens. If nothing happens in response to a behavior during the learning phase, the behavior is typically unaffected one way or another.

However, if nothing happens in response to a behavior after the dog has learned it, extinction can occur. Extinction happens when a previously learned response is reduced or disappears, and understanding the process of extinction- and the accompanying concepts of extinction bursts and spontaneous recovery- can help you affect your dog’s behavior.

Two types of extinction
When a behavior has been learned through classical conditioning, extinction happens when the conditioned stimulus is no longer associated with the unconditioned stimulus. Let’s go back to Pavlov’s dogs, who learned that the sound of a bell (the conditioned stimulus) predicted the coming of food (the unconditioned stimulus), and began salivating when they heard the bell ring as a result. The salivation became an automatic response for them, but if the bell rang and then the food didn’t come enough times, they would stop salivating when they heard it. That would be extinction.

When a behavior has been learned through operant conditioning, extinction happens when the consequences no longer follow the behavior. Remember that behaviors only increase due to reinforcement, so what this means is that if a behavior is no longer reinforced, the concept of extinction tells us that the behavior will go away. Although extinction works for both classically learned behaviors and operantly learned ones, I’ll discuss them in the context of operant behaviors today for simplicity’s sake.

How long does it take?
Extinction can happen quickly, or it can take a very long time. There are three main factors affecting how quickly a behavior extinguishes.

The first is the reinforcement history. If a dog has been reinforced for doing something many times, it will be difficult to convince him that behavior is no longer going to pay off. The second is whether or not there has been a history of a delay between the behavior and the reinforcer. If the dog is used to waiting for his treat after doing something, when a reinforcer doesn’t come at all during extinction, he may assume he just needs to be more patient. The final factor has to do with the reinforcement schedule used. Using an intermittent schedule- that is, only giving a treat sometimes- makes the behavior harder to extinguish because the dog thinks that he might get the treat next time instead.

How do you do it?
If you’re trying to get rid of a behavior through extinction, the first step is to figure out what’s reinforcing it. Then, you need to remove that reinforcer. That’s it!

Sound simple? It really isn’t. We humans are notoriously inconsistent, which means that our dogs are often unintentionally and accidentally reinforced for things. Since intermittent reinforcement strengthens a behavior, making it resistant to extinction, this works against us. For extinction to work, you must be absolutely consistent in not reinforcing the undesirable behavior.

Complicating matters is the fact that some behaviors are self-reinforcing, meaning that the dog gets some kind of internal satisfaction from performing the behavior. Unfortunately, you can’t control that. And of course, the dog gets to define what’s reinforcing, so you may think you’ve figured out what’s driving the behavior, only to find that your efforts are having absolutely no effect on the behavior.

Is that why it’s getting worse?
Surprisingly enough, no. If you implement an extinction procedure and find that the behavior is getting worse, it actually means you’re on the right path. This is due to the absolutely maddening phenomenon known as the extinction burst, which is the sudden and temporary increase in the behavior’s frequency or intensity. It’s easy to understand why this happens when you think about it- imagine you have just put some money in a pop machine, pushed the button, and… nothing. No soda! So you push the button again, then harder, figuring that you must not have done it quite right. That is an extinction burst.

Extinction bursts typically happen almost immediately after you’ve quit reinforcing the behavior, and are usually short-lived. They do sometimes come back intermittently, but each time they do, they’re shorter in duration, have a lower intensity, and happen less frequently. Just ride them out, and eventually you’ll find that the behavior is gone entirely.

A word of caution
Even if you manage to successfully get rid of the behavior, it’s always subject to something called spontaneous recovery, in which the behavior comes back despite the lack of reinforcement. Generally, if you avoid reinforcing it, it will extinguish again rapidly. However, spontaneous recovery does remind us that it is best to prevent undesirable behaviors from starting in the first place.

The bottom line
Keep these things in mind as you train your dog. If you want him to continue to do a behavior reliably, you can create a resistance to extinction by having a long reinforcement history, by delaying the time between the behavior and the reinforcer, and by using an intermittent reinforcement schedule.

On the other hand, if your dog has a long history of jumping up or only sometimes gets food when he counter-surfs, these behaviors will be harder to get rid of, too. With undesirable behaviors, it is always best to manage the situation so that your dog can’t practice the behavior and thus be reinforced for it.

I hope this series on learning theory has helped you develop a decent understanding of how to condition responses in your dog, and how to uncondition them if need be. If not, I hope it's at least been enjoyable to read! I know I’ve really enjoyed writing them- it’s helped really cement some of the concepts in my brain. Although there is a ton more to learning theory, I think I've covered the major points. Please let me know if there are any other aspects that you’d like me to cover- I'd be glad to do it in the future.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Trick 2- Wave!

I've been a bit lazy with training lately. Between a yoga injury (don't laugh- it was awful) and job hunting (I got it!), I've been busy, stressed, and just not in the mood to train.

Still, here's our second trick: wave!

This was taught by targeting and a bit of shaping. She already knows to offer a paw to a hand target, so I just moved my hand up higher and higher, and then clicked for movement. Simple.

This trick is not under verbal cue, it's not under stimulus control, and honestly? I don't really care. It's a trick, and people are just so darned impressed when your dog can sit on cue (even if it takes a second cue), that I figure this will suit my purposes just fine.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Learning Theory 101: Operant Conditioning

As I mentioned earlier in this series, according to the behaviorism branch of learning theory, learning takes place through two types of conditioning. I’ve already told you about classical conditioning, so today it’s time to talk about operant conditioning!

Although the term “operant conditioning” was coined by B.F. Skinner in the 1930s, it actually has its roots much further back. In 1905 (only two years after Pavlov presented his first paper on classical conditioning), Edward Thorndike published his Law of Effect. This law basically says that behaviors that have good consequences will happen again in the future, while those that have bad consequences will be less likely to happen again. Despite the fact that the Law of Effect really sums up operant conditioning quite well, Skinner expanded so much upon Thorndike’s work that it is sometimes called Skinnerian conditioning (it is also sometimes called instrumental conditioning), and Skinner is widely referred to as the father of operant conditioning.

Like classical conditioning, operant conditioning is the process of forming associations between two things. However, while classical conditioning forms a direct and reflexive association between two stimuli, operant conditioning works by forming an association between a voluntary behavior and the subsequent consequences.

In other words, the dog learns that his behavior causes stuff to happen, so he either repeats it or avoids it in the future. Although classical conditioning creates an automatic response, operant conditioning implies that the dog thinks about his behavior, and then deliberately and voluntarily acts in his own best interest.

It is called “operant” conditioning because the dog is operating on the environment (the technical terms for “doing stuff”).

Consequences for (Almost) Every Action
Since operant conditioning is defined by the idea that consequences drive behavior, we need to know what the possible consequences are. Logically, there are three options: something good will happen, something bad will happen, or nothing will happen at all. It’s rare that nothing happens at all. For example, if you are standing and choose to sit, it may look like nothing has happened as a result, but in reality the stress on your joints has changed. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is another matter entirely, but the point remains: most behaviors are followed by some sort of consequence. As a result, we will discuss the other two consequences today.

This means that the core tools of operant conditioning are the good consequences and the bad consequences that happen. When something good happens following a particular behavior, the dog is more likely to repeat that behavior. This is called reinforcement. When something bad happens after the behavior, the dog is likely to avoid doing that same behavior in the future. This is called a punishment. All of dog training- heck, all learning by any species- happens because a particular behavior was either reinforced or punished.

The Good Lord Giveth, and the Good Lord Taketh Away…
Both reinforcement and punishment can happen in two ways: something can be added to the situation, or something can be taken away. These two eventualities are respectively referred to as “positive” and “negative.” Since we tend to think of these words as value judgments, this is probably the hardest part of learning theory to understand. It is therefore important to understand that in this case, “positive” doesn’t mean good, and “negative” doesn’t mean bad. Instead, think of these two terms in the mathematical sense: something has been added or something has been removed from the situation.

As a result, there are four possible consequences following a dog’s behavior:

Positive Reinforcement (R+): This is where something is added to the situation (positive), and the behavior increases as a result (reinforcement). The behavior increases because whatever added was desirable, and the dog wants it to happen again. You can think of R+ as a reward.  
Example: You ask your dog to sit. He does, so you give him a treat. Next time you ask, he sits again. Because you added a treat and the sitting behavior increased, it is R+.

Positive Punishment (P+): This is where something is added to the situation (positive), and the behavior decreases as a result (punishment). The behavior decreases because the thing that was added was unpleasant, and the dog doesn’t want it to happen again.  
Example: You are walking your dog, and he pulls on the leash, so you give a collar correction. Next time you walk with him, he doesn’t pull. Because you added a collar correction and the pulling behavior decreased, it is P+.

Negative Reinforcement (R-): This is where something is taken away from the situation (negative), and the behavior increases as a result (reinforcement). The behavior increases because whatever was taken away was annoying or unpleasant, and the dog is glad it’s gone. You can think of R- as escape or relief from something unpleasant.  
Example: You ask your dog to sit. When he doesn’t, you pull up on the leash, putting pressure on the collar around his neck. You maintain this pressure until the dog sits, then release it. The next time you ask him to sit, he does. Because you took away the pressure and the sitting behavior increased, it is R-.

Negative Punishment (P-): This is where something is taken away from the situation (negative), and the behavior decreases as a result (punishment). The behavior decreases because whatever was taken away was awesome, and the dog wants to keep it next time. You can think of P- as a fine or penalty.
Example: Your dog jumps up on you because he wants your attention. You ignore him and walk away. Next time your dog wants attention, he doesn’t jump on you. Because you took away your attention and the jumping up behavior decreased, it is P-.

Putting it all Together
It is important to remember that the dog defines if the consequence is reinforcing or punishing. While you may think you’re giving the dog something awesome, he may disagree. For example, some dogs love carrots. Maisy doesn’t. If I offered her a carrot as a positive reinforcer, I might be surprised when she walked away instead of doing what I asked. On the other hand, Maisy loves to be squirted in the face with water- something that is often recommended as a punishment. If I squirted her in the face to get her to stop barking, it’s very likely that the barking behavior would actually increase. The ultimate test of whether something was a reinforcer or a punisher is if the behavior increases or decreases in the future.

I’ve also found that the quadrants tend to work in tandem. For example, the standard advice for pulling on leash is to “be a tree” when the dog pulls. By stopping the forward movement, we are hoping to decrease the pulling by taking away the dog’s ability to get where he wants to go (negative punishment). When he stops pulling and instead moves back to loosen the leash, we start moving forward again, thus increasing the behavior of keeping the leash slack by adding in movement (positive reinforcement).

Because more than one quadrant is being used for the same skill, it can be difficult sometimes to figure out which one is at work. Therefore, while understanding operant conditioning will make you a better trainer, I don’t see the need to over-think things. Don’t worry about which quadrant you’re in, and whether or not it’s “acceptable” to use it. Instead, focus on the results you’re getting.

If you aren’t getting what you want, consider why that is. Are the consequences that you’re providing actually reinforcing or punishing? Is there something else at play? Unfortunately, you cannot control every consequence. Some behaviors are self-reinforcing, and you’ll need to think critically and act creatively. By understanding operant conditioning, you’ll be able to more easily parse out what’s going on and then get the results you want.

Finally, timing counts. No matter which quadrant you're using, your timing must be good. The consequences need to happen as soon after the behavior as possible so that the dog can make the association between the two. The process works best when the consequence comes immediately after the behavior. This is part of why clicker training has become so popular: it allows the trainer to bridge the time between the behavior and the consequence, making it clear to the dog why he's being rewarded.

Still, no matter how you train, no matter what methods you're using, operant conditioning is at work. If you like what your dog is doing, reward him for it! If you don't, punish him. Just remember that punishment doesn't need to be painful or scary. I much prefer negative punishment- removing things the dog likes- and have found it very effective.

I hope this post has helped you understand operant conditioning better. It's a complicated subject, but I find it fascinating!

In addition to the links in this post, you may find the following websites interesting:
This site has a nice summary of operant conditioning, plus a bonus video of a pigeon in an operant conditioning chamber (also called a Skinner Box).
A Brief Survey of Operant Behavior, by B.F. Skinner.
An in-depth historical look at operant conditioning.
Learn more about Thorndike here.
Two great posts by Patricia McConnell: Are you all positive? and The Positives of Negatives and the Negatives of Positives.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I'm starting to re-think that whole "reactive" thing...

On Saturday, Maisy and I headed over to my friend Megan’s house for an evening full of friends and fun. The car ride over was interesting; in addition to Maisy and I, we also somehow fit my husband Brian, my friend Elizabeth, and her greyhound, Beckett, into my Honda Fit.

Laura was already there with corgi Lance and toller Vito when we arrived. Maisy has met both Lance and Vito in the past, but only briefly. Also present was Megan’s springer, Buzz.

We spent a little time training (Laura is a master trick trainer, and talked me through the finer points of a few tricks with Maisy), and then Lauren and her boyfriend Ryan arrived. Despite the fact that he's a dude, Maisy likes Ryan.

Finally, Sara and her new dog, Dobby, arrived. Dobby is a profoundly neophobic Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog, so he stayed in the car until we were ready to go for a walk through the woods. Maisy had never met Dobby before. (Dobby did great, too, in case you were wondering.)

After our walk, we headed back inside for supper and movies. I was actually quite impressed by how well Maisy did. Despite having six dogs, one cat, and eight people all crowded into Megan’s house- where she’s never been before- she was fairly relaxed. She did have a few instances where she barked reactively at reflections in the windows, but overall, she was able to relax. She was social and spent time with everyone (especially Elizabeth), and even took a nap with me!

Photo by Sara.
Best yet, there were no lingering after-effects. Oh, sure, she was exhausted on Sunday, but so was I. But she wasn’t more anxious or vigilant around the house than usual on either Sunday or Monday, which is awesome, especially considering that last Thanksgiving, she took almost a week to recover.

I shared this video (the same one I put on Facebook on Sunday) with Maisy’s veterinary behaviorist, who called it a “breakthrough” for Maisy. I hadn’t thought of it as a breakthrough at a time, although I was very happy with how she did. After thinking about it, though, her behavior was a pretty big deal. That was a lot of chaos, and she was able to relax while we were there. She was able to recover quickly. And she was, dare I say it, happy pretty much the whole time. This is a far cry from the dog she used to be, and I’m beginning to wonder if that whole “reactive” thing is really true anymore…

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Learning Theory 101: Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning

Using desensitization and counter-conditioning, Maisy has learned to be 
comfortable in the presence of other dogs- even ones she doesn't know!

In my last post on learning theory, I discussed classical conditioning, which is the process of creating automatic physical or emotional reactions to a stimulus. Sometimes those associations are useful and desirable, and sometimes they’re not, like when a dog associates the presence of children (or other dogs or bicycles or balloons or whatever) with something scary. When this happens a dog might shut down in fear or behave “reactively” or aggressively. Although it is unfortunate when this happens, the good news is that we can change these responses through two complementary processes called desensitization and counter-conditioning.

In the post on classical conditioning, I discussed the Little Albert experiment, in which a psychologist was able to condition a child to be afraid of fuzzy white objects. His student, Mary Cover Jones, began experimenting with the reverse, and was able to use classical conditioning to reduce fears. Joseph Wolpe expanded upon her work following World War II. Reasoning that if most behavior is learned, it can also be unlearned, he developed a systematic approach for reducing undesirable conditioned responses called desensitization.

Desensitization and counter-conditioning are like two sides of the same coin: they are distinct from one another, but work best when paired with the other. They are used when we want to change the physical or emotional association a dog has already made with something.

Desensitization is the process through which we weaken the previously learned association. This is done by gradually exposing the dog to low levels of the stimulus without provoking the unwanted emotion or reaction. Counter-conditioning is a form of classical conditioning which changes the pre-existing association. While classical conditioning can happen quickly- sometimes in just a single trial- counter-conditioning often takes much longer. However, you can reduce the amount of time if you are careful to keep your dog sub-threshold, which is what happens during desensitization. Therefore, desensitization and counter-conditioning need to go together to both weaken the undesired response and then program in the desired one.

Practical Application
Okay, so let’s say your dog has created an association that you want to change. Perhaps he’s fearful like my dog and barks or growls or lunges at Scary Things. One thing Maisy will do this toward is people riding bikes. Although there is nothing inherently scary about bikes, the behavior happens because she has formed an association that says “bikes are scary!”and reacts automatically.

In order to stop the behavior, we need to teach the dog that bikes are not scary. We’ll do this through desensitization. However, if we don’t give the dog any information on how he ought to feel about the scary stuff instead, it’s likely he’ll “re-sensitize” to it. This means that we need to take our training a step further, and teach the dog that bikes are predictors of awesomeness. This will happen through counter-conditioning.

Start by making a plan. Identify as many of the things that triggers the undesirable association as possible. Pay attention to the variables for each trigger, too: is it all bikes? Only ones ridden by children? Or maybe men? Does the speed of the bike make a difference? Or maybe the distance?

Next, learn to read your dog’s threshold- that is, the point at which he reacts. When you begin training, you want to find the "sweet spot:" the point at which your dog notices the trigger, but doesn’t react negatively. He should be able to split his attention between you and the trigger. If you can’t get his attention, you’re too close to his threshold. If he doesn’t pay attention to the trigger at all, you’re too far away.

Although we typically think of thresholds in terms of distance, duration and intensity matters, too. If you can’t change your proximity to the trigger, try lowering the intensity. Use visual barriers and sound-dampening devices. Have cyclists move slower, seek out older children rather than younger ones, or whatever makes sense given your dog’s responses.

Now you’re ready to train. Take your dog somewhere that you can expose him to one trigger only and find the “sweet spot.” Now, create a new association by pairing the trigger with something awesome. The easiest way to do this is with really yummy food. Think chicken or hot dogs or whatever your dog likes best. As long as the trigger is present, feed your dog continuously. Stop feeding when the trigger goes away.

This will take time- Pat Miller recommends working with the same trigger and intensity for at least 20 minutes, or until your dog sees the trigger and says, “Yay! Where’s my chicken?”- whichever is longer. Then you can increase the intensity (whether that’s by moving closer, having the cyclist go faster, or getting more children to hang around) and repeat the process. Increase the intensity in very small amounts. If do too much too soon, you will undo you hard work and possibly even make things worse. Be very careful to stay in the "sweet spot" during all stages.

This process is time- and labor-intensive, but the more work you put in, the stronger the new association will become. I promise, it’s worth the effort. If you aren’t getting the “yay!” effect, I highly recommend consulting with a skilled trainer. A good trainer can help you figure out what’s going on with you and your dog.

In addition to the links in this post, you may find the following websites interesting:
Patricia McConnell on counter-conditioning: is it classical or operant?
This site does a great job of explaining how to create a systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning program.
Although designed for human use, this site does a nice job of breaking down the “anxiety hierarchy” when creating a desensitization plan. It may also have applications for those of us with ring nerves!

Saturday, March 5, 2011


I started a Facebook page for this blog last night. I plan to post regular updates to celebrate our successes (there's one there right now!), discuss our training, and share cute stories. I'll upload adorable pictures. I'll link to interesting news articles (especially those of the science-y variety). And of course blog posts will be syndicated on the page, too! So, if you just can't get enough of me or Maisy, please go "like" us on Facebook!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Medication Update: 5 months

It’s been five months since Maisy first started taking paroxetine (Paxil), and three months since we increased the dose. So how is she doing? Absolutely fabulous. I took behavior logs for two days this week… if you can call it that. I didn’t actually write anything down! She might have vocalized a slight wuff at one point, but I wasn’t sure- it was so quiet that I couldn’t tell if she was sighing or wuffing. This isn’t to say that she doesn’t have any outbursts at all anymore- she does- but they are far less frequent, and they don’t have the same anxious, overly-vigilant quality any more.

In addition to relaxing at home, she’s relaxing while out and about. You’ll remember, of course, that she was able to relax in class recently, and we’ve started working on going back to trials, too. There’s more work to be done there, but I’m feeling pretty confident about it since the behavior modification work I’ve done around dudes seems to be paying off.

I’m also happy to report that she’s finally earned working privileges in her Tuesday night reactive dog class. We started working on being calm in her crate during class awhile back, and the deal was that she would spend classes in her crate until she could go the full hour in a covered without vocalizing or snarking at the other dogs. For a long time, she had only one little outburst per class, usually towards the end. Honestly, I was beginning to wonder if she’d ever make it out of that crate! But this week she spent the whole class in her crate calmly. In fact, as we first arrived, she was really excited to say hi to the Scary Doberman (Maisy hates large, dark-colored dogs with prick ears). This is huge progress for her.

Overall, I'm really glad that I chose to put Maisy on medication. I get the occasional email from readers asking about our experiences. Am I glad I did it? Do I regret it at all? And perhaps the most common concern: did her personality change? This last question makes so much sense to me- after all, I loved Maisy just as she was before I put her on medication. I didn’t want her drugged, I just wanted her normal.

If the medication has changed her personality, it’s only because it has allowed her personality to shine through even stronger. She is so much more relaxed, confident and outgoing. I really feel like the anxiety was altering her personality by preventing its full expression. Indeed, the medication is allowing her to grow into her true self. She’s the same dog, but better, and I am so grateful for it. My only regret is that I didn't do it sooner.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Learning Theory 101: Classical Conditioning

Through the process of classical conditioning, Maisy has developed so many 
positive feelings for her crate that she'll try to get in it even when it's folded up for storage!

The behaviorism branch of learning theory says that you can tell if learning has occurred by looking at a living being’s (in this case, a dog’s) behavior. The assumption is that behavior changes because the dog has learned that it is in his best interest to make that change. Behaviorism says that this learning takes place through two types of conditioning. Today, I’m going to tell you about one of them: classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning was studied and described by psychologists first, while its counterpart- operant conditioning- came roughly twenty to thirty years later. I assume that for those years, classical conditioning was simply referred to as “conditioning,” and that the prefix was added to differentiate it from that new-fangled stuff B.F. Skinner was doing. It was the “classic” version, hence the name (although it is also sometimes referred to as Pavlovian conditioning or respondent conditioning instead).

Although a general understanding of classical conditioning can be found in fiction as early as the mid-1700s, the concept wasn’t scientifically recognized until Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov began studying digestion in the late 1800s (for which he won the 1904 Nobel prize in physiology). It was during the course of this study that he accidentally discovered that he could cause dogs to salivate upon hearing a bell ring. He first presented a paper on conditioning in 1903. (As an interesting historical note, the father of operant conditioning, B.F. Skinner, was born a year later, and didn’t publish his first paper on conditioning until 1930.)

The Definition
In a nutshell, classical conditioning is the process of transforming something meaningless into something meaningful. If a completely neutral stimulus is paired with one of importance enough times, that neutral thing becomes important by association. The classic example: Pavlov’s dogs began salivating every time they heard a bell ring because they learned that sound happened when food arrived. The meaningless sound became meaningful because of classical conditioning.

The Importance
So why should you learn about classical conditioning? Because training is both an art and a science. Although some people are “naturals,” most of us need to learn how to train our dogs; this is where the science comes in. Classical conditioning is important because it we can use it to create a tool that bridges the gap between the dog’s behavior and the consequences. We do this by teaching our dogs that a certain sound (or sight or smell) predicts a certain consequence simply by associating them often enough.

Clicker trainers do this all the time. The sound of a clicker has no particular meaning to dogs until it has been “charged”- conditioned to mean good things- by pairing the sound with a tasty treat. Dogs quickly learn that the distinct clicking noise actually predicts a treat. But classical conditioning isn’t the sole domain of the clicker trainer. Since the purpose of a learning theory is to describe how dogs learn, anytime training works, learning theory is at work. This means that traditional trainers are using learning theory, too; the metallic sliding sound of a choke chain becomes associated with a collar correction. These sounds, too, have gone from being meaningless to meaningful through classical conditioning.

The Scientific Mumbo-Jumbo
Going back to my definition, you can see there are a number of concepts at work. You’ve got the neutral stimulus, and you’ve got the meaningful one, and when you pair them, you can see a change in behavior. There are terms for all these things.

The unconditioned stimulus (US) is the meaningful thing. Your dog doesn’t need to learn that the meaningful thing is important because it’s been hardwired into his brain. His reaction is called an unconditioned response (UR) because nobody needs to teach a dog how to react to food or pain- he just knows. It’s a reflex, in the same way that pulling your hand away from a hot stove is reflexive for you.

The conditioned stimulus (CS)- the thing that used to be meaningless- becomes important because it was associated with the important thing (the US). The result is that the dog will respond to the neutral thing (the CS) as if it were the important thing (the US). This new response is called a conditioned response (CR).

So, going back to the example of Pavlov’s dogs: they understood what food was, so the food was the US. When they salivated because they saw the food, this response was a UR because salivation is a reflexive response to food. The bell was initially meaningless to them, but they gradually learned that it was associated with food, therefore the bell is a CS. When they salivated when they heard the bell, the salivation became a CR. Clear as mud, right?

The Implication
Don’t worry about remembering all the terminology. While it’s interesting, you don't need to keep it all straight when training. However, I explained it because you should understand that when a dog learns to respond to the conditioned stimulus- to the formerly meaningless but now meaningful thing- that reaction becomes automatic, and the dog can’t stop it any more than he can stop his reflexes. And here’s the important thing: while the example of Pavlov’s dogs describes a physical reaction, it can happen with emotions, too.

In other words: through the process of classical conditioning, we can create certain feelings in our dogs. Classical conditioning can be used to create good feelings, or it can be used to create bad ones. Clicker trainers often note the joy their dogs have in working for that silly clicking noise. Conversely, in 1920, psychologist John B. Watson performed the famous Little Albert experiment, in which he conditioned a baby to be afraid of white, fuzzy things.

What’s more, classical conditioning is going on all the time. Anything can get associated with anything… the trick is getting our dogs to make the associations we want. This is part of why I personally choose to avoid pain and fear in training- I don’t want Maisy to associate those feelings with me, nor would I want her to associate them with anything else that might be present in her environment, like children or other dogs. (To be fair, these mis-associations happen with positive methods too. The first time Maisy met Beckett, I gave her lots of treats in hopes that she would love him. Instead, she loves his person, Elizabeth.)

The good news is that when these associations go wrong, we can fix them through a process called counter-conditioning. I will tell you about that in my next post on learning theory. In the meantime, feel free to ask questions, make corrections (I know I have some readers who are better educated than I am), or share examples of the associations your dog has made.

In addition to the links in this post, you may find the following websites interesting:
This collection of links. on learning theories as a whole, and behaviorism in specific.
A general overview of classical conditioning.
Another description of the US, UR, CS, and CR.
Pavlov’s lectures on conditioning.
Watson’s paper on Little Albert.