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Could Pavlov's Dog Come Back to Bite You?

Raise your hand if you walk into a post office and are flooded with warm, happy feelings. No? It's just me? When I was growing up, my grandmother was the Postmaster for her town's post office and I spent many vacations watching her sort the mail and sell stamps and money orders while catching up on town gossip.

Those feelings are not only evoked by "her" post office, but any post office. My childhood experiences formed a positive association to the sights, sounds, and smells of post offices, even those I have never visited. This is classical conditioning: Pavlov ringing a bell, then feeding the dog until the dog would salivate at the sound of the bell.

And here's how it could come back to bite you.

Dogs are always forming associations. Regardless of whether you think you are using classical conditioning techniques or operant conditioning techniques, associations are being formed.

Animal trainer Bob Bailey is frequently quoted saying, "Pavlov is always on your shoulder." Regardless of what you think you are teaching, classical conditioning is always happening. The dog is always learning. Safe. Unsafe. Pleasant. Unpleasant.

So, if you say "Sit" and press on your dog's hindquarters, releasing the pressure only once his rear is on the ground, your dog might learn to sit on cue (an example of negative reinforcement - you release the pressure to reinforce the correct behavior). However, if your dog sits only to prevent you from pushing on him, do you think "Sit" carries a pleasant or unpleasant association? I once worked with a dog that ran away from the owners when they said "Sit." Not the behavior they were going for.

This is why aversives have such a high risk of fallout. We might think we're teaching or even "correcting" a behavior, but we can't guarantee what associations the dog is forming.

I knew a dog that attended a rattlesnake avoidance clinic. The snake was in a metal cage and the trainer administered an electric shock any time the dog approached the cage. On their next walk, the dog began exhibiting a fear of metal drainage grates. Although the trainer claimed he was creating an aversion to snakes, while the dog associated the shock to the metal grid pattern of the cage.

Now, imagine Brutus is reactive to other dogs he encounters on walks. Brutus and his owner are enjoying a pleasant walk when they see another dog walker. Brutus starts to stiffen and growl, and the owner begins to "correct" him (insert jerks on the leash, jerks on a prong collar, spraying with condensed air, spraying with citronella, administering an jolt with an electronic collar, etc.) until he stops. Prior to the appearance of the other dog, Brutus was not subjected to any of those things. It was only when the other dog appeared that they started to happen. What, then, is the association being formed?

Even when we are committed to using non-aversive or "force-free" methods, we still have to be careful. The use of treats is no guarantee that the dog is forming positive associations.

Pavlov didn't just do one experiment with dogs and call it good. He recreated his experiment with different variations. For example, ringing the bell while the dog was eating. Ringing the bell after the dog ate. The only way the association of bell = food was formed was when the bell rang and food followed.

Videos of dogs being fed during an unpleasant experience (such as a vet exam or during nail trims) are often shown as an example of counter-conditioning. The dog is wrangled into position, the nail clipping begins, and then the dog is given a spoonful of peanut butter. At best, the dog is distracted. But the chances that he will form the association that nail trim = peanut butter is slim.

If you present the peanut butter before you start the nail trim, there's even a chance that the dog will form an unpleasant association to the smell of peanut butter.

In order for counter-conditioning to occur, the order matters. The neutral or scary thing needs to be presented first and at a level that does not provoke a fearful response in the dog, then the peanut butter (or boiled chicken liver, etc.) is presented. So, just because you're using food during something the dog finds unpleasant does not mean you are counter-conditioning. There are times that something in the environment can derail our training. You might pull out your dog's leash to go for a walk when suddenly a car backfires, sending your dog into a panic. From that point on, picking up the leash might send your dog fleeing down the hall. Leash = loud noise.

Following the steps above, you would remedy this by presenting the leash - maybe just setting it on the floor - then feeding the dog. Rinse and repeat. How many times? As many times as it take for your dog to show signs of happy anticipation when the leash appears.


When presented with a new technique or piece of equipment, don't just buy into the idea that it "works." Lots of things look like they work in the moment. But, ask yourself what association the dog is forming. What does the technique or equipment predict? Good things? Bad things?

If the association is unpleasant or scary, it will come back to bite you. Maybe not immediately. Sometimes it takes months or even years for that association to build up to the point that it develops into a problem behavior.

But, once it does, it can take just as long to change it back. And, sometimes, we can only change an association from negative to neutral, forever losing the chance to create a positive association.

Counter-conditioning seems simple and is often presented as such. Too many well-meaning people in forums promoting non-aversive methods tell dog owners, "You just need to desensitize and counter-condition that." Just two things, how hard can it be?

In reality, we're talking about changing an unconscious emotion. There's nothing simple about it. It takes a lot of time and repetition to change an emotion. How many repetitions followed by a stack of cash would it take for you to stop flinching when a bee lands on your arm? Longer if you've actually been stung before. Maybe never if a bee sting is life-threatening.

It is far easier to take the steps to make sure our dogs' experiences with people and other dogs are pleasant and safe. Don't let Pavlov's dog come back to bite you in the a**!


Serenity Canine Behavior Ⓒ2022 Lisa Mullinax. All rights reserved.

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