Imagine that you have a next door neighbour who shows up at your house periodically with a delicious meal and a nice bottle of wine. You would start to look forward to seeing this person at your door because their appearance predicts really good stuff.
Your neighbour on the other side comes over just as often to complain about your kids and your dog. You dread seeing him approaching your door because you find his ranting uncomfortable and even abusive.
This process of forming emotional associations to situations or people is called classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is happening all the time in our daily lives although we don’t consciously think about it.
What many dog owners also don’t realize is that our dogs are also constantly making associations. They learn that events, people, other dogs etc. can all predict something that is either good or bad. If going in the car predicts trips to the dog park the dog learns to like the car. If car rides usually predict trips to the vet the dog can learn to dislike or fear the car.
Why does classical conditioning matter when we just want to teach our dogs to sit, lie down, stay etc? There are many different ways to train a dog. We can shape, capture or lure the behaviour and then offer the dog a reward. The dog will likely repeat the behaviour because they were rewarded for it. Or we can yank on their leash or shock them with an e-collar until they perform the behaviour to escape from the pain. The dog will likely repeat the behaviour to avoid experiencing the pain and discomfort. If we get what we want from the dog does it really matter which of these methods we use?
When you offer your dog positive reinforcers they will associate the training with good stuff. They are also being classically conditioned to regard you in a positive way as the provider of that good stuff. Positive reinforcement training strengthens your relationship with your dog.
If you use fear or pain to teach your dog you are very likely to instill dislike or fear of whatever predicts the bad stuff. If you jerk on your dog’s collar or shock them, if you hit your dog, if you spray them with water or lemon juice your dog might come to associate you with those scary or painful events.
Owners often tell me that spray bottles, prong collars and shock collars solve behavioural problems quickly. Yes, those tools can get you what you want through fear and avoidance. But what is the cost to your relationship with your dog? Let’s go back to our human example. You might try to maintain better control of your dog and your kids for a while to keep your ranting neighbour away from your door. But I am willing to bet that he’s not going to be the guy that you ever invite over for a barbecue.