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Behavior chains Part 4: Basic Learning Theory

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Now let’s veer away from Behavior Chains for a moment to introduce Operant and Classical Conditioning; we’ll combine these issues soon when we consider even more complicated scenarios.

Operant Conditioning is one way animals learn; it’s a simple “If/then” statement.  The animal consciously realizes that “if I do X then you do Y”.  So, if the dog sits, then the dog gets a cookie.  Consciousness is very important here; the animal must recognize how his behavior does (or does not) affect the outcome to be operant conditioning. Until now, this series has assumed operant conditioning when discussing behavior chains.

Classical conditioning is another way animals learn.  It is a simple association between two things.  It can involve emotions (happy, sad, nervous), physical reactions (increased or decreased movement) or involuntary reactions (drooling, hormone release, etc.).  From the dog’s point of view, a classically conditioned behavior chain might go something like this; “Mom is preparing my dog food.  When food is being prepared I get to eat.  I love to eat!  Drool is forming in my mouth because food preparation happens before I eat. Eating makes me happy.  Feeling happy makes me excited and that makes my body want to move more.  When I see food I feel so much excitement that I leap around!”

Now you have a classically conditioned behavior chain – the dog never had to “think” anything at all to cause this chain to happen; simply experiencing food preparation over time caused a chain to form.  In both operant and classical conditioning, learned has occurred but one was a conscious event and the other was not.

Did learning occur?  Yes.  Did that learning cause predictable changes in the dog’s behavior?  Yes.  Was it a conscious choice to drool, feel excited, and leap around?  No.  It’s a conditioned response to the process of eating and food preparation as opposed to a conscious choice, but the end result is the same – a behavior chain has formed.  In fairness, many examples of learning have both classical and operant components, but for the sake of simplicity…work with me here.

People also experience operant and classical conditioning.

I happened to experience a classically conditioned response recently.  A few friends joined me and we set up a practice ring for our dogs.  When one of my friends took on the role of the judge and called me into the ring, I found myself feeling nervous!  Even though I was well aware that this wasn’t a dog show, I still had the emotions that I experience at a real dog show when a judge calls me into the ring.  I became hyper aware of my dog’s behavior  and my heart rate increased!  Logical?  No; I knew that this was not a dog show.  Classical conditioning doesn’t have to be logical; it just happens.

So now that we understand that classical conditioning “just happens”, what is the relationship between the trainer and classical conditioning?  When you prepare your dog’s food and they become excited, or when  you train your dog to heel, are you relevant to the process of classical conditioning?

Yes, because the dog begins to associate you with the entire process of learning.  Whatever emotions your dog experiences in training will now also become attached to your presence as the trainer.  This is called a Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) and it takes place through classical conditioning.  Your dog does not choose to be happy when the food preparer shows up; it just happens.  The dog does not choose to be happy at the start of a training session with a trainer who uses lots of desirable reinforcers – it just happens.  That’s very good news for those of us who compete in events where our reinforcers are severely limited.  We may not be able to bring our food and toys into the ring with us, but we always bring our dogs dog’s CER into the ring.  If that CER is positive, then our presence provides a good deal of emotional support to the dog because they willl find themselves feeling “happy” in our presence in a training context.  Much the way I found myself feeling “nervous” in the presence of a judge, except hopefully….happy!

Both operant conditioning and classical conditioning cause learning, and both need to be understood when you make a choice about how to handle your dog’s behavior at any given time.

In order for an OPERANT behavior chain to form the dog must be aware that his behavior creates consequences.  “Every time I look up at mom in heel position I get a cookie”.  The dog tries out variations (sniffing, looking away,etc.) and finds that they don’t work and soon, the dog understands that the way to the cookie is to look up at mom continuously.

That is very different than the dog that leaps and drools when food is being prepared.

But…what if the owner does not appreciate the dog’s leaping around at food preparation time?  Then the trainer can make a point of causing the food to disappear every time the dog starts the leaping.  This will cause your dog to transition into an operant mode; they will work to understand why their food has disappeared.   They will begin to connect their behavior (which until this time was probably unconscious) of leaping with the food disappearing.  Then they can try out alternatives to see if they work better.  For example, “when I stay calm the food continues to approach me and when I leap it disappears.”

In the above example, you’ve transitioned from classical to operant conditioning in order to affect a behavior chain.  Timing is critical here. If the very first second the dog does a big leap then the food disappears,  the dog is likely to make the connection quickly.  But if the owner is either inconsistent  (sometimes the leaping causes the food to disappear, other times it is ignored), or if the owner is simply slow (the leaping is ignored for five seconds before the trainer responds by removing the food) then the dog will struggle to figure out what causes food to come or go.  Further, the longer that the dog’s classically trained response is ignored, the harder it will be for the dog to become conscious of the change desired by the trainer.  When the rules of the game are changed, especially after a behavior chain has a strong history of continuous or inconsistent (partial) reinforcement, then the dog is likely to be very frustrated because he won’t know how to “win”.  Frustration leads to all kinds of bad things, including, unfortunately, an association between the owner and negative emotions.  The owner becomes associated with negative emotions such as frustration rather than positive emotions built on mutual enjoyment.  To understand this, re-read the paragraph above on CER’s.  If the dog associates you with the removal of what they want (food in this example), then you’ve got a problem if you cannot also find a way to either communicate to your dog the desired behavior to bring the food back, or find another way to reduce your dog’s frustration.

To summarize.  Classical and Operant conditioning are different, yet connected.  ALL operant conditioning also involves classical conditioning, because the dog is unconsciously developing a CER when being trained – let’s hope it’s a happy, positive, and enthusiastic state, because that classical response to training is also being connected to how the dog feels about his trainer.  While all operant conditioning involves classical conditioning, the reverse isn not true; not all classical conditioning is operant, because operant conditioning is only in play when the dog is conscious of how their choices affect the outcome.

So now that I put you through reading all of that…why do you care?  Because understanding classical conditioning is the only way to understand why there are many times that I will give a dog a cookie or a toy even though I do not like the behavior the dog is showing me.  In those instances, I am choosing to prioritize the dog’s emotional state over conscious learning.  That is the subject of the next blog in this series.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

6 responses »

  1. Great post! I love CC and CERs! Pavlov always trumps Skinner and is always on your shoulder, as Bob Bailey would say. If he’s gonna be there, work hard to ensure he’s working for you and not against you.

  2. Wow, Denise, I’m going to have to read this a few more times to figure out how this all plays into my training when my dog gets the zoomies. I do want to keep the positive, happy, enthusiastic relationship with me and training, but, how to control those self-reinforcing zoomies is the challenge. (I’ve tried leaving the scene and ignoring him, but when he sees me coming back he gets excited again.)

  3. I love this post. It is what I believe and practice but I have not been able to articulate it so well with regard to CC and CER connection. Looking forward to your next post on this. Thank you Denise!
    Char T

  4. Pingback: Why I Still Like To End Sessions On A Good Note | Ruby The Whippet

  5. Pingback: Training: Conditioned Emotional Response – Training Toka

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