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How Dogs Learn - Classical Conditioning

Sally Gutteridge
Are you wondering how dogs actually learn? Or maybe you’re a student of dogs trying to get your head around the term classical conditioning and what it means? Either way, read on.

Dogs learn and sometimes we teach them. However by knowing how they learn whether we are teaching them or not, we are empowered to help them learn well. Even more importantly we really should know how dogs learn and how the way they learn affects them for welfare reasons, so let’s take a look at the first way they learn – the Pavlov way.

Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning (also called respondent conditioning) means that the dog is responding to the environment and usually learning about it at the same time. The response is usually  emotional or physiological.

For example my sound sensitive dog Chips walked into a new holiday cottage kitchen just as I accidently dropped something. I went looking and he was hiding (and yes, I felt terrible).

Chips at that point had a physiological response to an external stimulus. We returned to that same cottage over 10 months later and Chips still associated the kitchen with a big bang that scared and likely hurt him.

What Chips had done was associate the kitchen with the effect that the sudden noise made on his ears and his body, I had accidently created a phobia through Classical Conditioning for my dog.

Little Albert - Creating A Phobia

I had created a phobia in the same way Watson and Rayner did with the famous little Albert experiment.

The Little Albert experiment tested if a small child could associate a white rat with a loud, scary noise, thus becoming scared of the rat. Initially Albert played with the rat, but then every time the boy reached to touch the rat the experimenters made the boy jump.
By pairing the jump (physiological response) and the rat (environmental stimulus) they created an unpleasant and distressing fear of the rat, a fear that then became generalised to items that closely resembled the rat, and any white fur.

They are famously known for stating that now the boy "is even afraid of Santa Claus".

Their work was to show that phobias can be created, in the same way as pleasant expectations from the presence of a stimulus which is associated with a specific result. Click the picture below to learn more about Little Albert. Be aware though, it's not a nice experiment for the little boy or the animals who were used. Thankfully and for ethical reasons - it wouldn't be done today. 

Dogs Are Always Learning

Classical conditioning is happening all the time and it’s not exclusive to dogs, no learning theory is. We might have a small crash into another car while as a passenger, for example. While no-one got seriously hurt, we had experienced a physiological and behavioural response within which we believed our life was at risk.

The car becomes a scary place (environmental stimulus) because we responded with fear while in it (physiological response) so we worry about the car. 

This type of learning can include any emotional and physiological response paired with any environmental stimulus.

For example being scared or hurt (physiological response) by another dog (stimulus).

Or being in the garden when a firework (stimulus) goes off and being quickly scared (physiological response) thus worrying about the garden.

Dogs don’t only learn from being taught; they learn from everything all the time. Watch your dog today and see how many learning experiences you recognise.

I hope this makes Classical Conditioning a little clearer for you. If so, consider looking at our courses on how dogs learn and how we can help them through this human centric world.

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