Training Bullytin #3
How Dogs Learn: Associations
What does your dog do when you pick up his leash? What about when you start the can opener to make his dinner? How does he act when you are driving him to the dog park? Any difference if you take a detour to the vet? Perhaps without even knowing it you have helped create associations for your dog. Leashes predict walks. Can openers predict dinner. The route to the dog park predicts fun. But arriving at the vet’s office predicts shots and other unpleasant experiences.
The building of associations is called classical conditioning and it is one of the most studied phenomenon in the history of psychology. Does the name Pavlov ring a bell? Pavlov used a bell to condition dogs to salivate by associating the ringing of a bell with dinner. Modern dog trainers use the building of associations to modify how dogs feel about certain events and therefore change the dogs’ behavior. Let’s look at an example.
Lorenz’s owner has been working from his home office for 9 months now. He has noticed every Wednesday two things happen like clockwork: 1) Garbage trucks roll down the alley making all kinds of loud noises. 2) Lorenz goes berserk; running around the house barking until the trucks pass. Before working from home, Lorenz’s owner had little idea such drama was going on, but now it is effecting his weekly Zoom call and he’s got to do something about it.
He tried putting Lorenz in another room while the trucks were present. He tried showing his dog the passing truck saying, “See? It’s okay. It’s just a garbage truck.” And he tried yelling at Lorenz to cut it out. But Lorenz still ran around the house barking like a maniac every Wednesday. Lorenz’s behavior did not change because the truck coming down the alley always predicted the scary sounds of hydraulic machinery and clanging trash cans.
So how do we get Lorenz to stop causing commotion every Wednesday? We create a new association. What if the sound of the trash truck predicted something wonderful, like a Kong toy stuffed with peanut butter, yogurt, and bananas? Or a bully stick magically appeared on his bed every Wednesday, just when the trucks entered the alley? First, the tasty distraction gives Lorenz something to do instead of barking. But more importantly, over time the sound of the garbage truck predicts delicious snacks. He learns the trucks aren’t so scary and instead of barking Lorenz sits salivating by the fridge waiting for his yogurt laden Kong. Now Lorenz and his owner have something to look forward to on Wednesdays.
Other ways we can use associations to help our dogs include fear of strangers, leash reactivity, fear of other dogs, and at the vet’s office. So, the next time your dog is going off about something try creating a scenario that will ultimately change how he feels about the situation. Building a positive association can take some work, but the resulting behavior change is likely to last a lifetime.
Happy Training, Jenelle Bell, CTC Your Dog’s Champion (website coming soon!)