Animals learn by two methods and dogs are no exception. Learing by association is called classical conditioning and was explained by Ivan Pavlov, which some of you might know as Pavlov’s Dogs. The link to the Wikipedia page on classical conditioning is here
if you are interested in learning more.
The second type of learning is operant conditioning, as discovered by B.F.Skinner, which is effectively the animal learning by trial and error. I’ll enter and entry in the future on operant conditioning but I’m going to concentrate on classical conditioning in this entry.
I worked with a couple today who have a small dog, Igon, who is fearful of children up to the age of 14 or so and reacts aggressively when they get to close. During today’s consultation, we had the assistance of their friends who brought with them their 3 year old son and 7 month old baby. we worked safely, at or beyond threshold, which is the distance at which the dog reacts. The dog was on leash the whole time, with us concentrating on, among other things, keeping a loose leash so Igon didn’t feel under and restraint. The 3 year old, Chris, was an absolute superstar and exhibited timing which I have spent years developing.
At first, I handled Igon, so that his owners could see what he was capable of with and experienced handler, before they ha a go of handling him. I had Chris and his Mum out of sight and then when Igon could see them, I fed him some treats. They went out of site and the treats started again. Over many repetitions, Igon begins to look forward to Chris appearing as it means he gets treats.
When Igon was a bit more relaxed and I had gauged his distance with Chris, we then had Chris toss him treats when he looked calmly in his direction. We were starting to use a little operant conditioning here, as Igon had to make the choice to do something before Chris would toss him a treat but classical conditioning is occurring at the same time. Dogs generally enjoy eating, it causes a release of feel good chemicals in the body. If we can associate that feel good feeling with children, or whatever the scary thing is, the dog we are working with will, over many repetitions, learn by association that children mean the delivery of high value rewards and start to look forward to the appearance of kids rather than fear it.
The key to any classical conditioning protocol to change an association, also known as counter conditioning, is keeping the dog at a distance (beyond threshold) where he feels safe.
In the same way as we can make positive associations, it is also possible to make negative ones too. Using aversive training tools such as rattle cans, choke or prong collars, e-collars, sprays or leash corrections to try to control a reactive dog causes an already fearful dog to associate more bad things with you in the presence of the scary dog or person. This makes us unreliable and untrustworthy in the dog’s eyes and damages our bond.
Classical conditioning is a powerful and useful tool if used properly and powerful and damaging tool if applied incorrectly.