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Bringing on the Good Stuff Works

Behavior, behavior, behavior. Sometimes, we as humans are in such a rush to get a dog’s behavior perfectly on cue, we forget to determine whether “getting the behavior” is the priority. For fearful and stressed dogs, it often is not. The priority is classical conditioning, the learning process that occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired.

Starting with classical conditioning is important. When dogs are stressed and afraid, their brains don’t have much room left for the operant conditioning—or behavior modifying—side of the equation. The stressed, fearful dog is primarily concerned with fight, flight, and freeze reactions. If we ask a dog to sit or look at us during a stressful situation, he may do the behavior, but there may be a delay between the cue, the behavior, and the reinforcer, or the behavior may be weak or incomplete, leaving the dog’s human frustrated and leaving the dog without the valuable and timely placement of reinforcement.

Classical conditioning is deceptively tricky. Often when going into a consult, my job is to help people slow down and simplify their training so that their dogs begin making strong, positive associations with the environment.

As a quick review: Classical conditioning refers to a dog’s associations with events in the environment. The responses we elicit and condition through classical conditioning are involuntary. These conditioned emotional responses can be positive or negative. When training, we want to increase the amount of positive conditioned emotional responses. In pure classical conditioning, our use of food is not contingent on the dog’s behavior. The dog receives food simply for being aware of a particular event or stimulus. He doesn’t have to do anything else.

If we ask for any type of behavior, even something as simple as playing “look at that” or “click the trigger,” we’re not doing pure classical conditioning, because we’re making the reinforcer contingent on some sort of behavior.

Why not start with operant conditioning with a very fearful or stressed dog? There’s nothing wrong with asking for various behaviors like “watch me” or “touch” in various situations, and I often build these behaviors into a dog’s training plan. But asking for behaviors before we have a positive emotional response on board creates problems.

For classical conditioning to work effectively, dogs must realize their triggers are sure-fire, no-holds-barred, no-fail tip-offs to high-value rewards. If we impose conditions on that reward—“you must sit and look at me for two seconds,” or “you must heel at my side to receive a treat, even if you’re really scared”—we create confusion. We also weaken the strong association between the stimulus and the positive event needed to successfully change dogs’ emotions.

It’s easy to get stuck in this frustrating cycle. When clients call me and say the training isn’t working, this is the first place I examine in the training protocol. Often, I instruct clients to worry about building in behaviors later. The priority is delivering food and happy talk—the “good stuff”—upon appearance of the stressful stimulus and making sure the “good stuff” follows the stimulus every time.

I also tell clients with fearful dogs to create a different protocol: “No stimulus goes unconditioned.” Every time their dog encounters a stimulus (be it scary, anxiety-provoking, or slightly suspicious to the dog), I tell them to make something good happen. Whether it be a high-value treat, a game with a much-loved toy, or anything else the dog finds immensely rewarding, I tell my clients to maintain a religious 1:1 ratio between stimulus and the good stuff. Later, when the dog is less fearful and has a strong conditioned emotional response to the environment, they can bring in various operant behaviors and contingencies. But creating a sense of safety, and protecting trust between owner and dog, come first.

A happy, relaxed dog has more real estate in his brain to learn. Once those happy emotions flow upon seeing a previously stressful stimulus, we can start to build various behaviors into the training plan.

So if you’re working on classical conditioning with your dog, make sure you’re doing it correctly. By going slow and focusing on building positive associations, you’ll reach your behavior goals sooner, and your dog will be less stressed.

Maureen Backman, M.S., C.T.C., P.C.T.-A. is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at To purchase her training DVDs, visit

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Main article photo by: Photo by Emery Way-CC