How to Use Classical Conditioning to Train Dogs

by Elle Di Jensen
"When you hold your hands like that, we expect treats!"

"When you hold your hands like that, we expect treats!"

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You learned about classical conditioning in Psych 101, but it's useful for training dogs to do more than drool. It's an effective method for training your dog to respond reflexively, meaning when you motion with a hand gesture or utter a verbal cue, Buddy won't have to think about how he'll respond, he'll automatically do it. Classical conditioning works whether your dog is just beginning training or has a few obedience classes under his belt.

Order is Important

Your dog isn't bilingual -- yet. Classical conditioning will train Buddy to recognize and respond to words, but first he has to be taught what they mean. That's why the order in which you teach him to associate your words is important. For example, if your dog is sitting and you say "lie down" several times in an attempt to get him to lie down, he'll think that sitting is lying down. Instead, assist your dog in lying down while saying the words "lie down" and then reward him with a bite-sized treat and excessive praise.

Associations are Key

The key to successfully training your dog with classical conditioning is the associations he makes with the words or commands you speak. Under normal circumstances Buddy might not have any association at all with the word "sit," but when you couple it with a flavorful treat and lavish approval, all of a sudden "sit" equals yummies and love in exchange for sitting. That makes it an action he's willing to perform on command.

Make It a Family Affair

Classical conditioning can be a fast track to training, but it can be accelerated even more if the whole family gets in on it. Everyone involved in training Buddy should be consistent, so go through your first few training sessions together so that everyone is on the same track and knows the commands your dog expects to hear, as well as the response he expects to get from you when he performs appropriately. Kids helping out with training can serve a dual purpose. First, Buddy's training will be reinforced, and second, he'll begin to associate a positive experience with children, which makes for an obedient dog who is also child-friendly.

Using Conditioning to Re-Train

Classical conditioning can be used to re-train your dog, such as to eliminate an undesirable behavior and combat fear. In "The Only Dog Training Book You Will Ever Need" by Gerilyn J. Bielakiewicz and Andrea Mattei, dog parents are instructed to throw a ball or toss treats on the ground whenever a fear-inducing event occurs, such as when a loud noise sounds. Then when the noise subsides, stop throwing the ball or gather up the treats and put them away. This will change Buddy's association with the loud noise from fear to expecting something good.

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About the Author

Elle Di Jensen has been a writer and editor since 1990. She began working in the fitness industry in 1987, and her experience includes editing and publishing a workout manual. She has an extended family of pets, including special needs animals. Jensen attended Idaho and Boise State Universities. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications.

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