When ‘getting the behavior’ isn’t the priority

Behavior, behavior, behavior! Sometimes, we as humans are in such a rush to get a dog’s behavior on perfectly on cue, we forget to determine whether “getting the behavior” is the priority. For fearful and stressed dogs, it often is not. The priority is classical conditioning.

Starting with classical conditioning is important. When dogs are stressed and afraid, their brains don’t have much room left for the operant conditioning side of the equation. The stressed, fearful dog is primarily concerned with fight, flight and freeze reactions. If we ask a dog to sit or look at us during a stressful situation, he may do the behavior, but there may be a delay between the cue, the behavior and the reinforcer, or the behavior may be weak or incomplete, leaving the dog’s human frustrated and leaving the dog without the valuable and timely placement of reinforcement.

Classical conditioning is deceptively tricky. Often when going into a consult, my job is to help people slow down and simplify their training so that their dogs begin making strong positive associations with the environment.

As a quick review: Classical conditioning refers to a dog’s associations with events in the environment. The responses we elicit and condition through classical conditioning are involuntary. These conditioned emotional responses can be positive or negative. When training, we want to increase the amount of positive conditioned emotional responses. This type of training is different from operant conditioning, where a dog receives a reward or punishment contingent on a particular behavior. The dog sits, he gets a reward. The dog demand barks, he gets placed in time out for one minute.

In pure classical conditioning, our use of food is not contingent on the dog’s behavior. The dog receives food simply for being aware of a particular event or stimulus. He doesn’t have to do anything else.

So, if we’re classically conditioning a dog to have a positive conditioned emotional response to delivery trucks, we dispense food immediately after the dog notices the truck, regardless of whether the dog is looking at us, sitting, lying down, standing, or even barking. If we ask for any type of behavior, even something as simple as playing “look at that” or “click the trigger,” we’re not doing pure classical conditioning because we’re making the reinforcer contingent on some sort of behavior.

Why not start with operant conditioning with a very fearful or stressed dog? While there’s nothing wrong with asking for various behaviors like “watch me” or “touch” in various situations – in fact, I often build these behaviors into a dog’s training plan – asking for behaviors before we have a positive emotional response on board creates problems.

As I wrote in a previous post on the pitfalls of NILIF: “For classical conditioning to work effectively, dogs must realize their triggers are sure-fire, no-holds-barred, no-fail tip-offs to high-value rewards. If we impose conditions on that reward – ‘you must sit and look at me for two seconds,’ or ‘you must heel at my side to receive a treat, even if you’re really scared’ – we create confusion. We weaken the strong association between stimulus and positive event needed to successfully change dogs’ emotions.”

Returning to the delivery truck example. If we require the dog to look at us after seeing the truck, there’s a delay between the appearance of the truck and the delivery of food. This delay weakens the association we’re trying to build, and all the while, the dog is experiencing stress at the appearance of the truck. If we ask for a “watch me,” and the dog is too stressed to do so, then he doesn’t get a reward, meaning we’ve lost out on a crucial opportunity to communicate to the dog that delivery trucks are a surefire, no-holds-barred predictor of good things.

It’s easy to get stuck in this frustrating cycle. When clients call me and say the training isn’t working, this is the first place I examine in the training protocol. Often, I instruct clients to worry about building in behaviors later. The priority is delivering food and happy talk – the “good stuff” – upon appearance of the stressful stimulus, and making sure the “good stuff” follows the stimulus every time.

I also tell clients with fearful dogs to create a different protocol: “No stimulus goes unconditioned.” Every time their dog encounters a stimulus (be it scary, anxiety-provoking, or slightly suspicious to the dog), I tell them to make something good happen. Whether it be a high-value treat, a game with a much-loved toy, or anything else the dog finds immensely rewarding, I tell my clients to maintain a religious 1:1 ratio between stimulus and the good stuff. Later, when the dog is less fearful and has a strong conditioned emotional response to the environment, they can bring in various operant behaviors and contingencies. But creating a sense of safety, and protecting trust between owner and dog, comes first.

A happy, relaxed dog has more real estate in his brain to learn. Once those happy emotions flow upon seeing a previously stressful stimulus, we can start to build various behaviors into the training plan.

So if you’re working on classical conditioning with your dog, make sure you’re doing it correctly. By going slow and focusing on building positive associations, you’ll reach your behavior goals sooner, and your dog will be less stressed.

For further reading: “Plenty in Life is Free,” by Kathy Sdao

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

2 thoughts on “When ‘getting the behavior’ isn’t the priority

  1. Pingback: When ‘getting the behavior’ isn’t the priority – Dog Behavior Daily

  2. Very informative especially since my doug is fearful of noises outside and people and is very protective of me and our home he’s fine when I’m not around but when I’m there he nips and gets mean when someone goes to give a hug but only at home

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