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The use of classical conditioning in dog training is not old news. Many years ago, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov discovered a new concept that is widely used by many psychologists and dog trainers today. 

Each year, many entry level psychology students are introduced to the interesting studies conducted by Ivan Pavlov. Yet, not many people are aware of the fact that despite Ivan Pavlov's preparation on the subject of psychology, in reality he was not a psychologist at all. 

Ivan Pavlov was rather a scientist who studied in depth digestive processes. Such studies were so extensive and well researched, that he ultimately won the Nobel prize in 1904.

Ivan Pavlov by M.Nesterov (1930) Public domain

Ivan Pavlov by M. Nesterov (1930) Public domain

Development of the Classical Conditioning

So how did a scientist eager to study digestive processes end up discovering one of the most notorious principles of psychology still studied to this day? It all happened once Pavlov grew interest in learning about the role saliva played in digestive processes.

It was apparent that, every time his research dogs were exposed to food, an abundant flow of saliva started to pour out from their salivary glands. 

The role of this saliva was to help make food easier to swallow and break down certain compounds found in the food. This explained that digestive processes started in the mouth.

However, as an attentive researcher, Ivan Pavlov soon came to realize that the dogs were also salivating when no food was in sight: They were actually salivating upon being approached by any person wearing a lab coat!

This clarified that salivation was not always an automatic and unconditioned physiological response as Pavlov earlier thought, but rather it could rather be a learned response!

Basically, the research dogs with time had simply learned to associate the people wearing lab coats with the food they fed them, and therefore, were responding by salivating in anticipation.

Introducing the Sound of a Bell

Intrigued, Pavlov at this point started conducting a series of studies to confirm his hypothesis. He therefore started to sound a bell every time the dogs were fed. Shortly, the dogs started to drool each day upon hearing the bell ring.

The dogs were basically demonstrating that, unlike the unconditioned, automatic reflex of salivating upon seeing food, they were capable (thanks to learned experience), to associate the bell ring with food, creating therefore a conditioned, and therefore, rational response. This process of associating two stimuli together is known today as 'classical conditioning'.

Pavlov, however, did not stop his studies here. He continued by introducing a metronome to the dogs every time they were fed. This helped him get a better view on how the dogs learned these conditioned responses and further proved that his research was valid.

Pavlov, therefore, determined that food was an unconditional stimulus because it caused in dogs an automatic and natural response by inducing salivation. 

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The sound of a metronome was initially a neutral stimulus because dogs did not react to it in a normal setting. Once sounding the metronome and presenting food to the dogs, after some time, the metronome stopped being a neutral stimulus. 

Rather, it started becoming a significant object; therefore, from a neutral stimulus it became a conditioned stimulus that consequently created a conditioned response (salivation).

Use of Classical Conditioning in Dog Training

Pavlov's research has greatly contributed to behavioral psychology and his classical conditioning principles are still used as of today to treat phobias, anxiety and panic disorders. There are also many other uses of his principles such as keeping coyote away from domestic livestock.

In a study conducted by Carl Gustavson, John Garcia, Walter Hankins, and Kenneth Rusiniak in 1974, coyotes were conditioned to avoid preying on sheep using taste aversion. 

Basically, the meat of domestic sheep was injected with a drug known to cause nausea. Upon consuming the sheep meat, the coyotes grew ill, and with experience, learned to avoid herds of sheep.

In training dogs today, classical conditioning comes helpful in the shaping of certain behaviors. An example of a stimulus to which dogs react to without training is food (unconditioned stimulus).

 A dog does not have to learn to like food because dogs are naturally drawn to it and often drool at its sight (unconditioned response).

Stimuli to which dogs learn to react to are instead conditioned stimuli. A good example is a clicker used for clicker training. A clicker is a neutral stimulus at first (most dogs care less about its sound), but with experience, the dog learns that its clicking sound leads to food (conditioned stimulus), and therefore, sooner than later, learns to associate it with positive happenings and physiological changes occur at its sight (conditioned response).

Another example is a can opener. Most dogs care less about a can opener at first (neutral stimulus), but with time, they learn to associate its noise with food (the can becomes now a conditioned stimulus) and start running towards it in anticipation (conditioned response).


An example of how a whistle can turn into a conditioned stimulus eliciting a conditioned response

More Examples on Conditioned Stimuli in Dogs 

Looking for more examples of neutral stimuli that are often transformed into conditioned stimuli? A leash can be paired with walks, the act of putting your coat on may be paired with you leaving (dogs with separation anxiety know this too well!), the sight of lightning may be paired with thunder, and so forth.

In the earlier picture, you can see the conditioning process in whistle training. This involves pairing the sound produced by a silent whistle with treats. 

The whistle sound is initially a neutral stimulus. Dogs care less about it other than perhaps showing an orienting response to its sound. 

However, pair that sound with treats (unconditioned stimulus) several times in a row and soon you'll the see the dog running in anticipation upon hearing it (conditioned response). The whistle sound has now become a conditioned stimulus!

As seen, Pavlov has provided great contributions to both humans and animals. Even though his research dates back several years ago, his principles are still used as of today and continue to play significant roles in the lives of people and dogs across the globe.

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