“Conditioning” in Dog Training
I use the term “conditioning” A LOT!
However, I don’t think that most people understand the real meaning of the term as it equates to dog training.
Conditioning is not about his fur 😉
Conditioning in dog training refers to specific habits.
Unfortunately, the habits can be good or bad.
And, also unfortunately you can be in charge of creating these good or bad habits, and so can your dog.
Meaning, just because you aren’t conditioning a bad behavior, it does not mean your dog is not conditioning or creating bad behaviors or habits, himself.
So it is imperative that you are conditioning and creating good behaviors and habits.
When we pair two things together, continuously the things begin to become synonymous.
Take the clicker.
An actual clicker means nothing to a dog.
It is not some magical device or remote control.
A clicker is just something that makes a loud and sometimes irritating or scary noise to dogs.
But, when you begin to give your dog a treat every single time you make that noise; the two things together become one.
They become somewhat interchangeable and synonymous.
If you are good enough, some dogs get to the point where they are truly working for the click.
You are conditioning the dog that the click is a good thing, and teaching him what to expect. You are forming that good habit.
If every time you are out walking your dog and you see another dog, you yank his collar, tighten the lead, and/or otherwise correct or yell at your dog, you are conditioning your dog that seeing other dogs on leash brings bad things. You are pairing other dogs with a negative experience, which conditions that dog that seeing other dogs on walks is bad.
The doorbell automatically conditions the dog that there is a human on the other side of the door. The two things are paired together.
Conditioning happens all of the time!
You condition your dog on purpose (teaching and training).
You condition your dog on accident (reinforcing bad behaviors like leash reactivity).
Your dog conditions you (he barks and you reward him).
And, understanding how two totally different things can become nearly interchangeable to the dog is important to controlling and changing behaviors.
Conditioning is Much Easier than Counter Conditioning
Counter conditioning means changing the meaning or conditions of something to the dog.
Let’s say I want to change the meaning of the clicker to my dog; instead of it meaning something good I want it to equal punishment.
So instead of giving my dog a treat, I am going to back hand him each time I click (please don’t do this, I am simply trying to illustrate an example of opposites and counter conditioning).
It is going to take a much longer period of time to teach your dog that the click means something bad. His default is that the click = something good. So, even when you include pain, counter conditioning will take at least 2 to 3 times as long.
This is why, as dog trainers, we don’t like bad things becoming habit. Because habits are hard to break.
Counter Conditioning is Hard
Counter conditioning can take twice if not 3 to 5 times longer.
And, it is proven that when dogs are stressed, they default to the first thing they learned.
For instance, if the dog has dog aggression issues and first learns to cope using defensive aggression, it is highly likely even after counter conditioning has given him more appropriate coping mechanisms and skills like eye contact and obedience, that when he is truly stressed that he will default back to defensive aggression.
More on counter conditioning in another article.
So Let’s Talk About Conditioning
If you want to be successful in dog training, you have to be good at conditioning!
Pair things that your dog or puppy is nervous about with treats and games.
Your dog is afraid of the garbage truck on Friday morning? Pair that with a little canned dog food!
Imagine your dog hearing the garbage truck and realizing it means he gets his favorite treat!
Instead of running and hiding under the bed or barking, he comes running to you because he knows the garbage truck brings his weekly installment of canned dog food or a pig ear or whatever it is that your dog loves but doesn’t normally get!
My Dog Hated Big Trucks
I used to live in the country, we hardly ever even saw a human neighbor. I loved it! But, it didn’t exactly give my puppy great city skills.
I would meet my friend for runs in the city and my puppy would run at the sound of a truck backing up. Beep, beep, beep, beep would send him running backward and trying to get out of his collar (thank God he never did! Thanks to a martingale collar).
I knew I had to condition this sound with great things.
I found my dog’s favorite thing, a tug toy, and we headed to an industrial business that used big trucks frequently.
Every time I heard the *Beep, I would swing his tug toy and encourage him to play.
I wanted to condition him that this sound was fun and meant games with me, before he conditioned himself that the sound was horrible and meant to run.
After a few sessions he was running toward me when he heard the sound. *BEEEEEEP = play above and beyond anything else!
Conditioning in Dog Training is a Wonderful Thing
Conditioning is a wonderful thing when you are in control!
You can pair any non-like items together and teach your dog to show certain behaviors for reward.
Really the sky is the limit.
The opportunities are endless!
But, I want to be in control!
I want to be the one who pairs the items, positively and with fun and games.
I don’t want my dog to pair things negatively.
If I see even the slightest negative behavior that results in my dog toward something, I have an opportunity to quickly change that behavior and condition it in a positive way.
If my dog is reactive on leash, I can condition him to look at me so that he will be rewarded.
If my dog wants to jump on people, I can condition him that laying down and giving me his attention brings wonderful rewards.
If my dog was in charge, he would bark and lunge at other dogs and jump on visitors.
I want to ensure that I am in charge!
I want to make sure that I am teaching him appropriate coping mechanisms and training skills so that he knows how to behave in any given circumstances.
I want to “condition” him in a positive way to deal with all the things in his environment.
And, when I do that, I know that I am winning as a dog trainer and his owner!