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Dog Training and Classical Conditioning

To understand how classical conditioning works in dog training, you are going to do a simple dog training exercise. You are not going to teach any practical skill to your dog but this is a very important exercise to understand the first step in dog training: classical conditioning. Therefore, this exercise is more useful to you than your dog.

Take in account that you can’t carry out this exercise if your dog is not able to eat solid food (for instance, very young puppies or dogs which must be in a special diet because of health problems).

You need 15 to 20 food treats for your dog. These treats could be any healthy food that your dog enjoys, such as sliced hot-dogs, chicken chunks, dog food pellets, freeze dried liver, etc. Food treats must be of about the size of a navy bean (this is very important).

Your dog must be off-leash, so you must find a fenced place to carry out the classical conditioning exercise. It must be a place your dog is familiar with, and there should be no distractions. In other words, you, your dog and the food treats must be alone in that place.

Good places to practice this exercise are: the kitchen, a big room, a fenced backyard, etc.

In addition, since this is a food-based exercise, it would be better if it is carried out just before your dog receives one of his daily meals. Thus, he will be hungry and the results will be more noticeable. Then:

1. Hold some treats in your hand (you may keep the rest of them in a bag or in your pocket) and show them to your dog to capture his attention, but don’t let him to grab the treats.

2. Then, make a “click” sound with your tongue (stick your tongue to the roof of the mouth and then detach it quickly) or with a clicker, and give a treat to your dog. You may toss the treat near your dog or allow him to grab it from your hand, but give him the treat immediately after the click. If you toss the treat, be sure your dog can see it (don’t toss the treat if the ground is covered by tall grass).

If you don’t have a clicker and can’t make a click sound with your tongue, just use a sharp and short word, like “Ok”.

3. Repeat the same procedure several times, until you notice that your dog startles when he hears the click. Do as many repetitions as needed, though six or seven are usually enough.

4. Then stop clicking and giving treats, and ignore your dog for a while. When he looks away, click again. Your dog will look at you (or at least at your hand) very attentive. Give him the treat, end the exercise and give your dog his daily meal.

What happens here is that your dog associates the click sound with a food treat. This process, known as classical conditioning, was discovered by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and is the first thing you must do to train your dog.

Because of classical conditioning, the click sound becomes a signal that tells your dog that something good is coming (food, games, a walk, etc.). This is a very important thing because this signal is the simplest way to communicate with your dog.

If you think your dog gets conditioned to the click because he is hungry, you are right. Your dog is hungry when you do this exercise, because you carry it out before one of your dog’s meals. However, your dog does not have to be hungry when you train him. You can use high-value food treats for those times your dog is not hungry. These high-value food treats are food your dog loves but does not eat frequently.