Classical Conditioning

Basic Training

Classical conditioning (also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning) is a behavioural procedure in which a biologically potent stimulus (e.g., food) is paired with a previously neutral stimulus (e.g., a bell). It also refers to the learning process that results from this pairing, through which the neutral stimulus comes to elicit a response (e.g., salivation) that is usually similar to the one elicited by the potent stimulus.

In other words, Classical conditioning is how we learn to associate a neutral stimulus (like a sound, or a light) with a consequence. Classical conditioning means “basic learning”. That’s it. It’s one of the simplest ways dogs (and all animals including humans) learn. Once this principle is understood. you will be able to truly see what is going on behind some “enigmatic” pet behaviours.

Example behaviours:

  •  Your GSD becoming excited when you pick up his/her leash, because they know that it means going for a walk
  • Knows and reacts differently when family member come home as opposed to a stranger – they learn to recognise the sounds of certain cars
  • Getting excited when they see you putting on certain clothing items, e.g. your runners because they know it means a walk or run

These classical conditioning examples are not because GSDs have a sixth sense. It is simply that your GSD has learned predict what will happen through classical conditioning.

How does it work?


There is a signal (something the dog hears, sees, or feels). This is called “neutral stimulus” by physiologists because without any learning, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s neutral. For example:

  • the sound of the leash clicking
  • the distinct sound of your son’s car engine (which your dog can hear better than you)
  • the subtle but clear (to your dog) body language signals you give away when you are upset (short breathing, tense muscles, etc.)


Immediately after the signal appears, something else happens. This event is called the “unconditioned stimulus or US” by psychologists because it triggers an “unconditioned response or UR” in the animal.  These are events that naturally, and without training, elicit a reaction in the animal (a feeling, an action, an internal state, etc.). 

For example:

  • Going out for a walk (US): exercise, social interactions with other dogs and people, interesting smells are all things that produce hormones that make dogs “happy” (UR).
  • Your son arriving at the door and feeding the dog (US): social interactions with a family member and eating are all events that also trigger-happy feelings as well as the feeling of hunger/eating (UR).
  • You scold or punish your dog (US): elicits the feeling of fear and the actions of tail in-between the legs, ears back and maybe whining (UR).


After these events happen in that same sequence several times, classical conditioning happens. The dog learns (is conditioned) that the signal predicts an event. Now the signal (which is now called the “Conditioned stimulus or CS) alone will elicit the particular reaction (now called conditioned reaction or CR). 

For example:

  • the sound of the leash (CS) predicts going out for a walk and makes the dog feel excited (CR).
  • the sound of the car engine (CS) predicts your son is arriving and will feed the dog which makes him feel excited (CR).
  • your particular set of “upset” body language signals (CS) predict you are about to get really mad and punish your dog, he feels fear (CR).

The dog has learned to associate two events

By Kpmiyapuram (original work)Incnis Mrsi (vectorization) - Own work, Public Domain,
By Kpmiyapuram (original work)Incnis Mrsi (vectorization) - Own work, Public Domain

During classical conditioning our brain connects the two events to make them “feel” like they are the same thing!

For example:

  • The sound of the leash clicking will make the dog just as momentarily happy as it associates the sound with walks
  • The sound of a particular car engine will momentarily make the dog just as happy as greeting the person that they associate with that engine sound

This means that you will be able to train your GSD to feel good about a particular signal, such as a Marker Word or the sound of  a clicker. This signal can then be used as a reward in and of itself.

Caution is needed to avoid accidently conditioning your GSD fearful of certain things. The classic example is leash-aggression. When dogs are young and you first take them out for walks, it is natural to feel a little protective of your new puppy. When other dogs approach you unconsciously pull on the leash and tense up. Your puppy feels your reaction and eventually will see other dogs and tense up mimicking your behaviour.  Then, when combined with multiple intense encounters this becomes a learned behaviour leaving you with  a GSD who is reactive only when he/she is leashed.

Pavlov's Dogs

Classical conditioning is also known as “Pavlovian Conditioning”. Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, discovered this learning principle by accident. He was a scientist interested in gastric function. He used dogs to study salivation.

In his experiment:

  • First (signal): he rang a bell
  • Second (event): he gave the dog food and measured salivation. He repeated the experiment many times with the same dogs.
  • Third (conditioning): This is what he discovered. Dogs only salivate after food is delivered to them, not at the sound of a bell. But after many repetitions of his experiment, dogs started salivating when they heard the bell (and before the food was presented to them!). The dogs learned to associate the bell sound with food and salivated in anticipation.
By Salehi.s - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
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