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Classical Conditioning: What it doesn’t mean

One of the headlines from our animal behavior consult is that I’ve done far too much operant conditioning and not enough classical conditioning. Generally I assume that experienced “dog people” know what this means. A recent conversation proved otherwise. At least one person thought I meant punishment-based training when I said classic. So, just to be clear, classical conditioning is a way of learning, not the out-of-date punishment/dominance obsessed style of dog training.

Honestly, when this person said something like, “I’m glad to hear it. There are too many people feeding dogs for working or doing absolutely nothing,” I knew the conversation was going south on me.

Because here’s the thing … I pretty much *am* feeding Lilly in certain situations “for nothing.” I’m feeding her so that she’ll feel better about various stimuli (noises, people, dogs, etc.)

In very broad terms, I’ve spent a lot of time teaching Lilly do to things (despite how she felt) and less time teaching her to feel better about seeing, hearing, or doing certain things. In other words, I’ve been all about rewarding action in hopes it would change how she feels, rather than changing how she feels so that she’s better at the various actions I hope she’ll perform (like agility tasks or tricks or whatever).

So, just in case anyone else is confused, I wanted to clear that up.

To change her attention seeking behaviors, I *am* giving her the cold shoulder, which is a benign form of negative reinforcement (withdrawing my attention), but I’m certainly not “punishing” her for bugging me, feeling afraid, or (my current albatross) not coming inside at night when I ask.

If you have a handy way of explaining the difference between operant and classical conditioning, let me know.

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

Claire - July 25, 2008

Here’s how I explain the difference.

I think of classical conditioning as affecting involuntary feelings. The classic example is Pavlov’s dogs. In my dogs case, they get very excited and start drooling when we return from our evening walk because they usually get their dinner then. Their behavior is involuntary and is the result of classical conditioning.

In contrast, operant conditioning involves teaching the dog to make a conscious decision — like sitting when you give the cue. The dog has to think to make the right response and get rewarded.

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