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Overcoming Phobias Using Pavlov's Conditioning: Pavlovian Counter-Conditioning and Curing a Dog of Fears and Phobias

November 16, 2019

Conditioning is a method that was first applied to dogs back in the early 1900s when Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov began eliciting certain responses - called conditioned responses - in a group of dogs. Since then, dog trainers and canine behaviorists have been using Pavlov's discoveries to benefit fearful and phobic dogs the world over.

Pavlov and Classical Conditioning in Dogs

Pavlov began his experiment by pairing a neutral stimulus - a bell - with a stimulus that was significant to the dogs - a meat-flavored powder. The dogs would exhibit a natural response to the meat powder - they would drool and salivate. This innate, natural response was termed an unconditioned response. Initially, the dogs showed no acknowledgment of unusual behavior at the sound of the bell. But as the meat powder and the bell were paired for a period of time, the dogs learned to associate the taste of the meat powder with the sound of the bell.

Over time, Pavlov slowly removed the meat powder, but the bell remained. And the dogs would salivate (a conditioned response) at the sound of the bell (a conditioned stimuli) in anticipation of the meat powder, which they had learned to associate with the sound of the bell.

Conditioning and Its Role in Overcoming Canine Fears and Phobias

In the decades since Pavlov's discovery, dog trainers and dog behaviorists have adapted the workings of classical conditioning, and this method is among the most common and most successful when it comes to training and re-training dogs to perform skills, to overcome fears and it's even been used to help dogs resist instinctually-driven compulsions.

Pavlov's work illustrated just how powerful associations can be and when used strategically, this is called conditioning. Pavlov's method has been adapted for use as a training method for use with essentially every type of canine behavior.

In terms of basic obedience training, conditioning is used in a manner that pairs the desired behavior with hand signals or vocal cues, with reinforcement provided in the form of reward, such as treats or praise. An unconditioned response - such as sitting - is naturally elicited by holding a treat over the dog's head in a manner that causes the dog to sit. The action is paired with a vocal or hand cue - a conditioned stimulus. And the behavior is rewarded with treats that serve as reinforcement. Over time, the dog will begin to associate the act of sitting with the trainer's cue, and the act of sitting will be associated with a positive occurrence - receiving a treat or other reward. When the latter scenario occurs, this is known as a conditioned response.

When it comes to phobias, conditioning can be used in several ways. The most common method involves tapping in to the power of association through gradual exposure to the feared stimulus, which is presented in a less threatening way, combined with positive, pleasurable experiences, such as treats and praise, which serve to neutralize the negative experience.

Re-conditioning as a Way to Treat a Dog's Phobia

Re-conditioning occurs when a trainer or pet owner works to counteract a conditioned behavior. Conditioning does occur naturally throughout the dog's life, and often, the result is not desirable - such as the formation of an intense fear or phobia. Re-conditioning serves to counteract and undo that negative or undesirable conditioning.

To re-condition a dog with a phobia, the process typically begins by presenting the feared stimuli, such as thunder, in a less threatening manner. In the case of thunder, a recording is played at a low level that is less threatening and frightening to the dog. The dog's trainer then pairs the toned-down stimuli with positive experiences for the dog, such as praise, treats, play and other positive attention. Over time, the dog will begin to associate the feared stimuli, like thunder, with good experiences, rather than negative ones.

Gradually and over time, the volume of the thunder recording will be increased, to simulate the experience as it occurs in real life. The dog trainer will continue to provide treats and other positive attention, which the dog learns to associate with the thunder. The calming effect that occurs due to the treats and other positive attention is known as the unconditioned response. This results in a reduction in the amount of fear and distress experienced by the dog.

Once the experience of hearing the sounds of a thunderstorm is neutralized through association with treats and positive experiences, these unconditioned stimuli are removed from the situation gradually. But the dog's association of good experiences of treats and attention with the thunder remains, resulting in a new conditioned response to the thunder or other frightening stimuli that's at the center of the situation involving the phobia or fear.

Conditioning and Pavlov's discoveries are the basis for all effective dog training methods, particularly when those training methods target problematic canine behavior involving fear, phobias or other undesirable responses. And while an owner may feel comfortable trying to tackle a phobia or fear using training that's rooted in conditioning and Pavlovian theory, dog owners should always consult a professional dog trainer or dog behaviorist, as conditioning is a powerful tool that, if mistakenly used in an incorrect manner, may exacerbate an already bad situation.

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