Made famous by Pavlov’s dogs, classical conditioning is the process whereby two events become so closely associated that one always predicts the other. This article is part of a series on clicker training for gundogs.
How does it work?
Pavlov demonstrated that by ringing a bell whenever he fed his dogs, eventually the sound of the bell by itself was sufficient to cause the physical reaction of ‘drooling’, previously only caused by the presence of food.
A meaningless sound was now generating a feeling within the dog so identical to the feelings aroused by the presence of its dinner, that a physical reaction was induced. This process of a previously meaningless signal becoming meaningful by association, has been thoroughly testing and replicated in many different ways.
Why is it useful?
Giving giving an articial sound or signal the power to change the feelings and physiology of the dog, allows us to use a clicker to make a dog ‘feel good’. This in turn enables us to ‘mark’ or identify for the dog, the behaviour we want him to repeat through the use of the click. The click tells the dog that ‘food is on its way’.
Just like Pavlov, we have to ‘build up’ this association over time. By repeatedly following random clicks with a treat or reward of some sort, the click itself takes on the characteristics of the reward and is therefore able to reinforce the dog’s behaviour. This charging process is only necessary once for each dog, but it is essential that it is carried out before clicker training commences.
A temporary association
Typically classical conditioning may be temporary. That is to say if the two events are not associated with one another for a while, then the association between them breaks down and the training effect is lost. For this reason, we always follow the click with a reward as soon as possible.
However, and this is the important bit, a small gap in time between the two does not seem to diminish the power of the click. This is this very useful phenomenon, which allows us to click and strengthen behaviour even when we cannot reach our dog. The reward can be given after we have relocated.
Provided the time elapsed is small, and/or we do not break the association too often, the clicker will maintain its power. How clever is that!
You might also like to read ‘operant conditioning in a nutshell for gundog trainers’