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What is classical conditioning, really? Many seem to have a vague idea, especially the part where it involves a guy named Pavlov and some dogs, but what else? Why is it often mentioned in dog training circles, and why is it such a big deal? The accidental discovery of classical conditioning was actually a huge moment in psychology history for reasons far beyond being able to make dogs predictably salivate.


What is classical conditioning?

Classical conditioning is one of two types of associative learning. What this means is that the animal is learning an association between two stimuli, or between a stimulus and a particular behaviour. A stimulus is something that evokes some sort of response in the animal eg. light causing pupils to dilateIn the case of classical conditioning, the response that is evoked is involuntary. The animal responds reflexively – without thinking, and without intention (for example, nausea or cravings).

what is classical conditioning

Ivan Pavlov

How was it discovered?

Quick backstory. In the late 1920s, while measuring the volume of saliva produced by dogs for an unrelated experiment, Ivan Pavlov noticed something. He realised that his lab dogs started salivating (an involuntary behaviour) when there was no food around. He spotted it when a particular technician (the one who was responsible for feeding them) entered the room. As a result, Pavlov decided to set up an intentional experiment in order to properly observe and record what was happening.

What he discovered would eventually become one of the backbones of behaviourism – the study of human and animal behaviour.

What were his findings?

Pavlov found that when he presented a neutral stimulus (something the dogs had no particular interest in or response to – in this case, it was said to have been a bell) with their food (something that causes them to involuntarily salivate) enough times, the dogs started to drool even when just the bell was rung.



Let’s break Classical Conditioning down and define the players

At the start of the experiment you have:

The Neutral Stimulus (NS)

This is the stimulus that originally produces no particular response, except for having the animal notice its presence. In Pavlov’s experiment, it was the initial use of the bell.

NS → No Response

The Unconditioned Stimulus (US or UCS)

The UCS is the stimulus that results in a particular response before any intentional conditioning has even occurred. In Pavlov’s experiment, it was the dog food (it caused the dogs to salivate)

The Unconditioned Response (UR or UCR)

The UCR is the response caused by the unconditioned stimulus. In Pavlov’s experiment, this was salivation caused by the presence of yummy food.


At the end of the experiment you have:

The Conditioned Stimulus (CS)

Previously this was the neutral stimulus. Now, after enough repetitions, the neutral stimulus produces a new response and is now referred to as the conditioned stimulus (i.e. the stimulus has been conditioned). In Pavlov’s experiment, this is the bell causing the dogs to salivate.

The Conditioned Response (CR)

The conditioned response is the response caused by the conditioned stimulus. In Pavlov’s experiment, this was the salivation caused by the sound of the bell.


To put it simply, initially: NS + UCS → UR

Over time: NS becomes CS, and CS → CR


So what? Why does any of this even matter?

While causing dogs to drool may seem like a pointless exercise, Pavlov’s experiments have been monumental in progressing our understanding of how animals learn. Thanks to these studies, and many more after them, we can apply what has been observed to real life situations.


Why do we use classical conditioning in dog training?

Dogs are ultimate associative learners. They are constantly observing people, other dogs and their environment, learning as they go along. As a result, they can develop conditioned emotional responses to situations quite rapidly. This can be both a blessing and a curse. What do we mean by this?

What is a conditioned emotional response (CER)? 

A conditioned emotional response is much like the conditioned response from Pavlov’s experiments, except in this instance the behavioural response is an emotive one such as fear, excitement or aggression.

Consider what happens when your dog pays a visit to the vet and they are poked, prodded, jabbed and generally invaded. In future, after enough repetitions, they begin to feel anxious about being there before they’ve even gone through the doors or been led into the back room. They have developed an association between the environment (be it the building, the objects and/or the people inside) and the unpleasant experience. This is classical conditioning at play, and what has developed is a conditional emotional response.

Similarly, when you bring out your dog’s lead, he probably has a little dance, does a few circles around your legs and thwacks his tail on the furniture in complete glee. This is also a conditioned emotional response. Your dog has started to associate the lead (originally a neutral stimulus) with the excitement of being outside before you’ve even clipped it on and headed out the door!

Dogs learn incredibly easily – even in situations we’d prefer they didn’t. In fact, it’s for this reason that you should always be aware of what responses you are conditioning in your dog. In every moment you spend with your pet, he is learning. Whenever you can, observe the situation and ask yourself: Is he making a positive association or a negative one? How can you make it more positive if it isn’t already?


Applications of classical conditioning in dogs

You’d be amazed at what you can condition your dogs to enjoy:

  • Accepting a muzzle, aka muzzle training
  • Having their nails clipped
  • Coat grooming
  • Getting over their fears and phobias (such as the vacuum, the blender, strangers, children)
  • Overcoming aggression
  • Desensitisation to triggers
  • Virtually anything! Your imagination really is the limit


what is classical conditioning dog training


Does classical conditioning affect people?

Absolutely. Classical conditioning appears to have a major role in the both the development and rehabilitation of addiction, violence, phobiaspanic disorders and much, much more. Like dogs, we are always learning. Every interaction we have with another person or our environment is having a subconscious impact. We can even condition ourselves.


Classical Conditioning Examples

In humans there is an endless list of scenarios where classical conditioning plays a role:

  • being scared of the dentist, clowns, balloons, horror films
  • struggling to quit one substance, because it’s historically been linked with another (coffee & newspaper, cigarettes & alcohol)
  • feeling more energetic when you put on your active-wear



Classical conditioning is constantly at play, whether we’re aware of it or not. Our dogs are developing associations between stimuli just as much as we are. Since we’re the smart ones, it’s up to us to use this knowledge wisely. We can help prevent negative associations from occurring (potentially saving you years worth of headaches and drama), and overcome bad associations that have already been made. So, what are you going to do with this new information? How can you apply it to your own situation?



References and recommended reading:

  • Siegel, S. (1983). Classical Conditioning, Drug Tolerance, and Drug Dependence. Research Advances in Alcohol and Drug Problems, 7, 207-246.
  • Vernon, W. Ulrich, R. (1966). Classical Conditioning of Pain-Elicited Aggression. Science, 152(3722), 668-669.
  • Field, A.P. (2006). Is conditioning a useful framework for understanding the development and treatment of phobias? Clinical Psychology Review, 26(7), 857-875.
  • Wolpe, J. Rowan, V.C. (1988). Panic disorder: A product of classical conditioning. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 26(6), 441-450.
  • Reid, P. (1996). Excel-Erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them. James & Kenneth.


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