Dogs Learn by Association

Categories: Dog Behavior
By Laura Yurchak

Part 1 Classical Conditioning

My Border Collie Tasha was fearful of thunderstorms and fireworks. She was found running in a field at 4 months of age during the first week of July 1993. She was full of ticks and her paw pads were worn badly.  I can imagine her running from the fireworks that week.  As she is running away from one boom, she heads right into another bang. I truly believed that she associated those sounds to thunderstorms.  This was confirmed when her fear of storms diminished when she began to lose her hearing.  When her hearing was almost gone, the storms didn’t bother her anymore.
On July 26th 2010, George and I were working in our basement.  The dogs came down to see what we were doing.  Harley, my 2yr old Border Collie was the last one to join us. A minute or two after Harley came down, a loud thundering bang hit three times directly above us.  I thought a car came through our front room.  George thought the roof collapsed.  We rushed the dogs outside and went to investigate.  Our entire front room ceiling fell to the ground.  The thundering bang of the plaster and dry wall sounded like a tornado hit the house. Not long after, a loud thunderstorm hit our area.  Much to our surprise, Harley was shaking and came to us for comfort. This was very uncharacteristic of him.  He was never afraid of storms before. I thought back to the days with Tasha and my heart sank.  The next day it dawned on me.  The loud bangs we heard the day the ceiling collapsed sounded much like thunder.  Has Harley now associated the horrific sound of the ceiling collapse to thunderstorms?
Several types of learning exist. The most basic form is associative learning, i.e., making a new association between events in the environment.  This is also called classical conditioning.   In the early twentieth century, Ivan Pavlov was working with the digestive processes.  He presented dogs with food and measured their salivary response (how much they drooled). Then he rang a bell just before presenting the food. At first, the dogs did not begin salivating until the food was presented. After a while, however, the dogs began to salivate from the sound of the bell even when the food wasn’t present. They learned to associate the sound of the bell with the presentation of the food. As far as their immediate physiological responses were concerned, the sound of the bell became equivalent to the presentation of the food.  Could my Harley now associate the sound of thunderstorms to that scary episode we had with our front room ceiling?  We may never know for sure but I strongly suspect he does.

Part 2 Operant Conditioning

Psychologist B.F. Skinner described operant conditioning in the 1950’s.  Operant conditioning (sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning) is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.  There are four main quadrants that explain learning through operant conditioning.
First,  I need to explain a few terms
  • Reinforcement – makes the behavior increase
  • Punishment – makes the behavior decrease
  • Positive – something is added
  • Negative – something is taken away
Positive Reinforcement (PR) – The dog’s behavior makes something good happen. This happens when favorable events or outcomes are presented after the behavior. A response or behavior is strengthened by the addition of something, such as praise or a reward.
  • Something favorable is added
  • The behavior increases

Ex:  The dogs sits, you give him a treat.  As a result, the dog is more likely to offer the sit again.

Positive Punishment (PP) – The dog’s behavior makes something bad happen.  This is sometimes referred to as punishment by application, involves the presentation of an unfavorable event or outcome in order to weaken the response it follows.
  • Something unfavorable is added
  • The behavior decreases

Ex: The dog barks, he receives a shock from the collar.  As a result, the dog is less likely to bark again.

Negative Reinforcement (NR) – The dog’s behavior makes something bad go away. This is when the removal of an unfavorable event or outcome comes after the display of a behavior. A response is strengthened by the removal of something considered unpleasant.
  • Something unfavorable is taken away
  • The behavior increases

Ex:  Teaching a dog to sit by pulling upward on the leash until the dog sits.  The leash is loose when the dog sits.  As a result, the dog will sit to avoid-escape the leash tension.

Negative Punishment (NP) – The dog’s behavior makes something good go away. This is also known as punishment by removal, occurs when a favorable event or outcome is removed after a behavior occurs.
  • Something favorable is taken away
  • The behavior decreases
Ex:  The dog jumps on you; you turn your back and remove your attention.  As a result, the dog gains your attention by not jumping.
These principles can be used together to train a dog.  For example, your dog likes to jump on people.  Teaching them to sit for attention is the goal.  The dog is cued to sit; he does and gets a piece of food (PR).  The person begins to pet and he jumps, the person turns around and walks away (NP).  The dog sits again and receives a piece of food (PR).  The person returns and begins to pet.  The dog jumps but this time the person walks toward the dog taking the dogs space away (PP).  The dog stops jumping on the person.
Skinner also defined another learning style called Extinction. He determined that if a behavior is not reinforced, even after it is conditioned (a habit), it will gradually eliminate or change.  On the other hand, If the behavior you are trying to extinct is self-rewarding; this process alone will not work.  For example, if a dog is jumping on you and you stand still and break attention off of the dog, the dog may stop jumping.  But if that same dog is self-rewarded by jumping you will have to apply one of the other types of learning principles to eliminate the jumping.
Now that your head is spinning, don’t worry about all of these technical principles of dog training.  Leave that part to us.  Finishing up, in Harley’s case with the fear of storms, I will use classical and operant conditioning to try to help him overcome his fear.  I will play the CD of thunderstorm sounds at a very low volume while playing Frisbee, agility and other fun games with him.  While he is playing the games he will be rewarded for his successes.  If it is just the sound of the storms that scares him, we have a fighting chance of changing his association to the better.