I push a button and a bell rings. Because of the timing I instantly make an association between the button and the bell. I’ll probably push the button again just to be sure, but when I hear the bell again I’m sure of the connection. And now, if you asked me to make the bell ring, I’d push the button with confidence. I don’t consider that conditioning, I consider that learning. Dogs have no problem learning, and I see the same process with dogs. I create a situation where the dog is most likely going to perform the behavior I want, like go over a prop and not around the ends, and I use a unique prop that the dog can associate with the behavior. It only takes a couple of rewarded repetitions for the dog to perform the behavior with confidence and then I can expand on this by having the dog do a tight turn and come back over the prop. The association of going over the prop and not around the ends doesn’t change and in only a couple more rewarded repetitions the dog has learned to do a tight turn with confidence. I tie that to a verbal cue and I can now start moving back and sending the dog over the prop. So the prop has a distinct meaning to the dog. If the dog was turning right and I now want to train a left tight turn I use a different prop. I create a new unique association for that specific behavior.
There is a saying that fits what dogs are capable of understanding: Genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger. In other words for a dog to understand and respond to something the wiring has to be there. Brains are wired to connect things that we sense to behaviors, responses. In some animals the association is as simple as being able to detect light being connected to a flight response. So if a bug goes from dark to light it runs and lives, while the ones that don’t get eaten. If the trigger is connected to more than one response we have a choice. As connections get more complex we develop understanding. Pointing is a great example. Dogs are wired to understand pointing whereas other animals aren’t. More than that, dogs can tie pointing to a variety of responses based on context and this ability makes training dogs much easier. The dogs ability to understand pointing is a shortcut that we use constantly in training. If the dog did not understand pointing we would have to rely on training a series of behaviors that they do understand, or conditioning techniques, to teach the same response.
Our evolving abstract thinking has taken this to a whole new level and people rely on creating knowledge with language, mostly without experiences. To train dogs effectively we need to understand the rules and strategies that govern learning from experience and observation, which are different from the rules that we typically use as a result of our ability to use language. One of those rules is that dogs associations are very specific, both in what the dog senses and how the dog responds. When you first train a dog something, simply changing your location can result in a need for some retraining even though you are doing everything identically. On the other hand asking a dog to change a learned response to a stimulus, like barking when the doorbell rings, requires conditioning techniques. Dogs can’t just relearn something the way we can. Another rule is that sequence matters. As adults we learn almost everything as a sequence in time, step 1 … step2 … step3. This often makes little sense to dogs which is why we use back-chaining.
Conditioning strategies are necessary to retrain a behavioral response in a dog and therefore they are essential for animal behaviorists. But when I teach my dog properly nothing gets retrained. First I teach the most basic understanding by creating an association to body language, a verbal cue or a physical prop. Then I may add on to it, or combine it with another behavior the dog knows and relate that to a new cue. When I do this, the dog learns almost instantly and a great deal of progress can be made in a short period of time. Training effectively through conditioning requires a variety of techniques involving a lot of repetition and takes a lot of time and expertise. So I do not shape a complex behavior in a way that refines or changes how I expect the dog to react to a cue. I start with ‘be a splitter not a lumper’ and break complex behaviors down to a sequence of simple behaviors that the dog understands and develop the associations. Every cue or prop has one meaning and that meaning never changes. Then sequencing the associations in the proper order becomes critical if I want to train in a way that makes sense to the dog.
Here is an example. To train a tight turn on the ramp, I teach my dog to turn tight first, then I apply turning tight to turning on the ramp. This takes very little time and is very effective. If I train my dog to turn on the ramp first, then try to tighten the turn, I have to resort to conditioning which requires a lot more effort and the results are often not as good because the dog is more likely to turn wide in competition. The difference is in the sequence used when teaching and combining the two behaviors. Adding a ramp to turning tight does not alter the dog’s understanding of turning tight and the dog learns quickly. But when you change a dog’s turn by making it tighter, from the dog’s perspective, you are not adding a behavior you are trying to alter the dog’s understanding of turning off the ramp. This means modifying an existing behavior, which requires conditioning strategies, and the better you understand the complexities of conditioning the better the result.
Another example. I teach a dog to hold an object until I say ‘drop’ when I play tug exchanging with my dog. I don’t teach my dog to retrieve a ball until after this is established and when I apply the ‘drop’ cue to retrieving the ball then doing an exchange the dog has no problem understanding it. But if I train a fetch first, then try to teach the dog to hold the ball while running after me and my tug, I have to resort to a lot of repetition and shaping and errors.
Another reason that conditioning is required has to do with the genetics of behavior. Inbreeding can result in a behavior, a reaction to a stimulus, being removed from a line of dogs. For example a well bred working Jack Russell cannot be distracted from its prey. So if you want to be able to distract it from working you will have to condition the behavior. That response is no longer part of the dog’s natural repertoire, the dog no longer sees it as an option. It was bred out of the breed in order to create a better working dog.
Using the dogs ability to understand us, that has rapidly evolved naturally through our selection mostly while dogs were living in the wild, results in learning and is the fastest way to train. Conditioning techniques should be a last resort because they don’t create understanding and are more time consuming. But research has learned extremely effective techniques for altering behaviors and when necessary conditioning is a very valuable tool.
The reasons for applying conditioning techniques to training behaviors as discussed above are;
– needing to modify an existing behavior
– not initially breaking associations down to single behaviors
– not sequencing associations properly
– the behavior being bred out of the dog
To an extent far beyond that of any other animal, understanding people was a major focus of the evolution of the dog in the wild, and as a result they now intuitively learn from us in ways that are unavailable to the others.
There are responses which we consider behaviors that are not carried by any dog. For example while sitting is a behavior that can easily be associated with a cue, holding a sit despite your physical behaviors, until you verbally release the dog is not and it can’t be trained by a combination of behaviors so it has to be conditioned. I’m pretty sure that as a child, this was also true for me. So teaching puppies to sit can be done in a minute using any one of a variety of techniques, but teaching them to hold the sit until I give them a verbal release takes a few training sessions.