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Classical Conditioning: A Comprehensive Guide for Dog Training

Understanding how our canine companions learn and react to their environment is essential for fostering a harmonious relationship with them. One of the foundational principles in animal behaviour, particularly in dog training, is classical conditioning. In this guide, we delve into the intricacies of classical conditioning, exploring both its positive and negative aspects, and providing insights into how it can be effectively applied in dog training.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning, unlike operant conditioning, is a learning process that occurs through associations between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus. Initially discovered by Ivan Pavlov, this process involves pairing a neutral stimulus (like a bell) with an unconditioned stimulus (such as food) to elicit a conditioned response (like drooling).

Second Order Conditioning | Associations can be Contagious

Second order conditioning, also known as higher-order conditioning, extends the principles of classical conditioning to new levels of behavioural understanding. In this process, an already established conditioned stimulus is paired with a new neutral stimulus, effectively creating another conditioned stimulus.

For example, if a dog has learned to associate a bell with food and begins to salivate at the sound of the bell, a second order conditioning might involve pairing the bell sound with a light. Eventually, the dog will start to salivate at the sight of the light alone, even if it’s never directly associated with food.

This demonstrates that associations can be contagious, travelling from one stimulus to another, and broadening the scope of classical conditioning in practical dog training scenarios. Understanding this advanced concept allows trainers to create complex behavioural patterns, fostering better communication and more refined training techniques with their canine partners.

The Role of Associations

Associations in classical conditioning can be either positive or negative. Positive associations are created when a neutral stimulus is paired with something pleasant, while negative associations form when a neutral stimulus is paired with something unpleasant. Understanding these associations is crucial, as they can significantly influence a dog’s behaviour.

Because associations are contagious, it is equally important to reduce negative associations during training. Negative associations, if not managed properly, can lead to undesirable behaviours and increased anxiety in dogs. By proactively addressing and minimising these negative linkages, trainers can foster a more positive and productive learning environment for their canine companions. Examples and specific strategies for mitigating negative associations will be provided in subsequent sections of this article.

When evaluating potential dog training services, it’s beneficial to consider whether they address the impact of classical conditioning. This understanding is pivotal for the progress of your training. For more details regarding the Singapore dog training landscape, please see our article regarding Dog Training in Singapore here!

Positive Association

One of the most cited examples of classical conditioning is Pavlov’s experiment with dogs. Here’s how it works:

  1. Unconditioned Stimulus (Food) -> Unconditioned Response (Drool): Naturally, food causes a dog to drool.
  2. Neutral Stimulus (Bell) + Unconditioned Stimulus (Food) -> Unconditioned Response (Drool): The bell, initially neutral, is paired with the food.
  3. Conditioned Stimulus (Bell) -> Conditioned Response (Drool): Eventually, the dog learns to associate the bell with food and begins to drool at the sound of the bell alone.

This positive association achieved through classical conditioning is generic and can be applied to various triggers—bells, clicks, strangers, or other dogs. By leveraging this process, you can condition your dog to respond positively to different stimuli, enhancing their overall behaviour and adaptability.

Negative Association

Conversely, negative associations can also occur through classical conditioning, leading to behavioural issues such as fear, anxiety, and aggression. For example, if a dog gets excited when it sees other dogs and is punished by being hit, it may start associating other dogs with pain. This can result in the dog developing a dislike for other dogs or reacting aggressively whenever it sees them.

The Contagious Nature of Negative Association

Negative associations can be particularly problematic as they tend to generalise and spread. For instance, if a dog associates pain with other dogs, and other dogs are often accompanied by their handlers, the dog may start associating strangers with pain as well. In the worst case scenario, the dog will react aggressively towards strangers as strangers are associated with pain.

This reaction can further extend to any situation where strangers are present, such as on the street where there are cars, leading to a fear of cars. Now, the dog will react aggressively to cars. This cascading effect makes negative associations difficult to manage if not addressed promptly and systematically.

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a common manifestation of classical conditioning in dogs. Dogs with separation anxiety become nervous when their owners leave, often barking or destroying the house. This anxiety is not just about the act of the owner leaving but extends to pre-departure cues such as putting on shoes or picking up keys.

Addressing the Root Cause

Traditional methods using operant conditioning, like giving the dog food when you leave or rewarding it upon return, often fail to address the root cause of separation anxiety. These methods do not resolve the underlying classical conditioning issue. To effectively treat separation anxiety, it is essential to understand the root cause and address it through desensitisation and counterconditioning techniques.

If you suspect that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, please reach out to our CSAT professional for an assessment.

Reactive Dogs

Reactive behaviours, such as fear of cars or strangers, are often rooted in classical conditioning. Punishing reactive behaviour is ineffective because it relies on operant conditioning principles, which do not address the underlying classical conditioning causes. Instead, systematic desensitisation is required to alleviate the fear associated with specific triggers.

The Importance of Desensitisation

Desensitisation involves gradually exposing the dog to the feared stimulus at a level they can handle without reacting negatively. Over time, the dog learns that the stimulus is not a threat, reducing their reactive behaviour. Without addressing these fears, they can generalise to previously neutral stimuli, exacerbating the problem.


Classical conditioning operates involuntarily, influencing behaviours behind the scenes and often eluding the awareness of pet owners and even some trainers. Recognising the significance of classical conditioning is essential for effective dog training.

Many traditional dog trainers may overlook the impact of classical conditioning, focusing solely on operant conditioning methods. However, a comprehensive understanding of both conditioning types is crucial for addressing deep-seated behavioural issues.

For pet owners, knowing the difference between obedience issues and classical conditioning problems can help you seek the best help for your pet. If your dog struggles with deep-seated behavioural issues, consulting with an experienced behaviourist can provide the necessary guidance and support.

By recognising the importance of classical conditioning in dog training, you can ensure a more effective and compassionate approach to addressing your pet’s needs. For further assistance or to schedule an assessment with our chief behaviourist, feel free to contact us. Together, we can enhance your dog’s well-being and strengthen the bond you share.

For more insights and expert advice on dog training, checkout other articles on our blog. Let’s work together to create a happier, healthier life for your furry friend.

Picture of Webster Cheong, BA, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA

Webster Cheong, BA, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA

Webster has trained various species in zoos, rehabilitated companion animals, and championed animal welfare standards. He represented Singapore in the Amphibian Taxon Advisory Group, focusing on amphibian care and conservation. Now, his main focus is in canine fitness and conditioning as well as essential canine skills.

Picture of Qiai Chong, MSc, CSAT, CSB-D, CPDT-KSA

Qiai Chong, MSc, CSAT, CSB-D, CPDT-KSA

With over a decade of study in the animal behaviour and welfare sciences, Qiai earned her Masters from the University of Edinburgh and has since devoted herself to the welfare and behaviour of pets. She has worked as an animal behaviourist since, and her expertise lies in addressing pet behavioural issues such as fears, phobias, anxiety and aggression.

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