Understand Why Sometimes Paying “BAD” Behaviour can lead to “Good” Behaviour.

If you’ve every struggled with a behaviour problem in an animal, you may have been told to “create positive associations.” In order to do this, it helps to know what that specifically means.

Animals learn through a variety of ways. In animal training, two forms of learning are predominantly used. (Operant and Classical).  The problem with jargon is that it can make these processes seem more complex than they actually are. This is especially true of Classical Conditioning.  Classical Conditioning is rule busting, flies in the face of common sense, fixes behaviour problems and influences obedience. Many seemingly complex tricks start with Classical Conditioning. It really shines for problems involving fear, anxiety and resource guarding. While there is nothing wrong with standard obedience skills training, this “other learning” is so damn useful, nay critical, it’s a shame that it gets less attention.

Classical conditioning is a subconscious process making it hard to “see”, and thus difficult to understand. With clients, I have often used doodles on my white boards to illustrate this process. Jargon isn’t needed to understand the science behind dog training. Understanding how and when to apply a strategy does matter. I thought that by sharing some upgraded class doodles, it might make this concept easier to understand and thus apply.. Good news! You don’t need to learn the jargon. You just need to understand cats and can openers.

Most people are familiar with basic dog training.  You ask a dog to sit. If the dog sits, you give a cookie.  In this instance, good behaviour has been rewarded. Most of us have extensive human experience with rewards and punishments. Children receive stickers on homework. Adults might receive a bonus for a job well done. It’s logical and easy to comprehend standard “obedience”. We are accustomed to giving consequences for “good” and “bad” behaviour.

Classical conditioning is a different type of learning.  It’s what is referenced by the Barenaked Ladies when they sing, “Ring and Bell and I’ll salivate. How’d you like that? You can call me, Pavlov’s Dog.” (Brian Wilson)  It makes up the entire “Altoids” episode of the television show The Office. Classical conditioning is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere.

Classical conditioning is shared by most (if not all) species. It evolved early in evolutionary history, suggesting that it is critical to life and death survival. It helps us find more of the good in life. It helps us avoid danger. If you’ve ever become ill after eating a certain food, and then “could never eat it again,” this is your brain protecting you. Your brain used Classical Conditioning.  Your brain might be wrong, blaming the Pad Thai you ate when it was more likely the Sake. Your brain decided to protect you from Pad Thai.

Classical conditioning is ubiquitous, illogical at times, and subconscious.  No wonder it’s such a hard concept to really “get.”

Perhaps my favourite example is one most people know very well.  Classical conditioning is how cats learn that can openers predict food. If you can teach a cat to like a can opener, you can do Classical Conditioning with a dog.  Here is how it works:

Imagine that one has found a feral cat and brought it home. The cat is placed in a safe, quiet room and provided for with food, water and litter.   Otherwise, the cat is left to decompress, quietly, in a room of its own.

Unconditional Pay

Initially, the cat will flee and hide at the sound of the electric can opener. Can openers, along with most household sights and sounds are scary to this cat. The cat is paid AFTER acting in a fearful manner and while hiding in a fearful manner. The cat is being paid while “reacting.” Many people new to dog training worry that this food will reward the “bad” behaviour. In Classical Conditioning, it does not. The feral kitty is a real life example that will go on to prove this is not only possible, it’s expected.

If feeding our scared cat rewarded fear, our cat should become MORE FEARFUL.  That’s not what happens at all.

Initially, it’s the food that elicits salivation. The can opener is just a noise.

Once the cat feels ready to approach the bowl, they smell and see the food.  They start to salivate because of the FOOD.  There is nothing radical here.

Food Naturally Creates Salivation

Twice a day, the cat hears BUZZ.  That BUZZ is reliably followed by FOOD, a full big bowl of glorious, stinky cat food. Notice how few repetitions a day take place. Conditioning takes place more quickly with FEWER repetitions with LONG breaks between. It’s another rule change from standard skills training.

Over time, the cat SUBCONSCIOUSLY connects the BUZZ and the FEED.  With consistent pairings, the BUZZ is enough, all by itself, to get the cat drooling.

Buzz Sound Now Represents Food

Classical conditioning creates responses INSIDE the body.

The MENTION of Thai leads to nausea. (Fine..Sake)

Can Openers trigger salivation.

Warnings of impeding doom make our hearts pound.

The responses are INTERNAL, another hallmark of Classical Conditioning. The actual “trigger” no longer has to be present to trigger a reaction. Initially the can opener was the devil.  Now, it’s a dinner bell. You have trained the cat to happily DROOL.

EMOTIONS have changed. Since emotions have changed, the reaction also changes.

Measuring saliva isn’t easy or likely to happen.  However, we can see other changes. I called these side effect behaviours (Not a science term. I made it up, but it seems to resonate with many.)  When animals hear the can opener “dinner bell”, happy anticipation kicks in. The running to the bowl is a side effect. Animals go to WHERE they have been fed in the past. Side effect behaviours, like running to a bowl, can be seen and measured. They can be used to test if an animal has developed an association. If the cat hears the Buzz and runs to the bowl (especially if I didn’t open a can of food), I can be pretty confident that they love the sound of the can opener.

Here is the important takeaway.  The cat was initially paid while scared and in hiding. She was fed while “reacting”. Instead of fear escalating, the fear disappeared. Feeding after “bad” behaviour did not make fear worse. Our feral kitty example demonstrates that, at least sometimes, paying unwanted behaviour can make it better.  Paying REVERSED unwanted fearful reactions.

Can openers aren’t magic. The noise they make is, strictly speaking, just sound. Imagine that our feral kitty also is afraid of other sounds, like the blender.  We might want to make the cat’s life more comfortable, so it doesn’t run in fear each time we make a smoothie.  While there may be complex ways of dealing with such problems, using Classical Conditioning, one could run the blender (instead of the can opener) and drop some food in the cat’s bowl. Before long, the cat will be happily salivating to the sound of blenders. RRRrrrr – FEED.

Can Openers can be Replaced with other Stimuli

Any stimulus can be inserted into the first spot. It can be a sound, sight, smell, touch or taste.

Our feral kitty has demonstrated that:

Associations connect two (sometimes more) things. There is no “good behaviour” or “bad behaviour,” to look for, yes, click.

Classical conditioning changes emotions.

It seems to work with very few repetitions or effort. Two meals a day was enough to “work” for our feral cat.

AFTER conditioning, behaviours can emerge as side effects.  You didn’t pay for them initially.  They “show up.”

Before moving forward and applying this process, there are a few more bases to cover.

Why does Classical Conditioning sometimes seem like it “does not work?” (What can go wrong.)

How do you know which type of learning to use and when?

Are there limits to what you can condition?

Are there ethical boundaries on what one should condition? (Short answer yes.)

Do we have to put animals into scary situations to get results?  (Short answer NO. There are adaptations.)

How does this apply to skills training?

Do I have to pay my dog forever?

Are there differences between species? (Short answer, a little bit.)

Does it have to be food that is used to pay the dog?

In the meantime, a great piece of homework is to start watching for classical conditioning in the real world. Watch your dog when you pick up a bowl. Most dogs become visibly happy, even if bowls are empty.  Bowls have been associated to food. You’ll see dogs become visibly happy when they see a leash, because leashes usually mean fun outings. Watch for it in yourself as well. Perhaps, you just read about salty, crunchy, sour pickles. Then you realize, you’re salivating.

This is part of the “Core Skills” material. Technical terms have been removed as much as possible to hopefully make it less “jargony.”