Pavlov’s Dogs And Classical Conditioning – Learning The Cool Way

Pavlov’s dog, apart from the 70s rock band (remember Julia?), is much more. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian psychologist, back in the 1890s, responsible for one of the greatest scientific advances: classical conditioning (Pavlovian conditioning).

What do dogs have to do with that?

Well, Pavlov “discovered” classical conditioning, by observing the salivation in dogs in response to being fed. The key to these observations was that his dogs would salivate every time he entered the room, even if he was not bringing them food.

Apollo drooling while he watches me prepare his lunch
So what?

Well, this salivation reflex is ‘hard wired’ into the dog. In behaviorist terms, it is an unconditioned response, a stimulus – response connection that requires no learning: the dog sees the food and salivates. Nothing weird about that. But why would the dogs salivate, even if no food was present?

Well, the reason for that is the core of classical conditioning. Pavlov discovered that any object the dogs had associated with food would trigger the same response: salivation – and he dedicated his entire career to studying this type of learning.


Classical conditioning means “basic learning”. That’s it. It’s one of the simplest and coolest ways dogs (and all animals) learn. There are three simple steps to help the dog learn an association:

1: A signal (something the dog sees, hears of feels, like the leash clicking). In psychology it’s called neutral stimulus, because without any learning, it means nothing at all (unlike the food, which causes the dog to salivate anyhow)

2: Right after the signal, something else happens (well, something positive hopefully), and this event, without any training, elicits a reaction to the animal (a walk, food on its plate, a treat).

3 Repetition. If these events happen in THE SAME sequence several times, classical conditioning happens too, aka the dog learns.

During classical conditioning, the brain connects the two events, making them feel like they are the same thing. The leash clicking will make the dog just as happy as being on a walk.

Getting your dog’s attention is key. If the positive event that follows the neutral signal originates from you, you made the first step to getting his attention.
In layman’s terms
What happened to the Pavlov’s dogs was this:

– He would enter the room

– He would bring the food

-The dogs would drool at the sight of food

-The dogs would eat

At some point, after the unwilling repetition, the dogs associated him entering the room with food, so:

– He entered the room

– They would drool

What can happen to your dog:

– You lure the dog toward with the treats, pull your closed fist up, back and over the dog’s nose. The dog will be forced to sit down

– The dogs sits

– You praise him

-You give him the treat


-Pair the action of sitting with the word “sit”

– The dogs sits

– You praise

– You give a treat

Repetition will make the dog associate the “sit” command” with a positive event (the treats), like Pavlov’s dogs associated him with food. So the “sit” command is Pavlov, the treat is Pavlov’s dogs’ food and the drooling is the dog sitting. After the association has taken place, the food is no longer necessary (that’s why Pavlov’s dogs would drool even if no food was availabel), so gradually ease off the treats and what you get is:

– Ask the dog to sit

– He sits

Pulling causes the dogs to choke, and they can easily associate this negative emotion with other dogs they meet on their walk. (I see a dog – I choke -I feel bad – seeing a dog makes me feel bad)

Since classical conditioning is so easy to happen, owners might accidentally condition their dogs to negative feelings or behaviors. The most common of all is leash aggression, and it can occur very easily. You take your dog out – when other canines approach, you unconsciously pull on the leash and tense up, the dog feels your reaction and eventually sees other dogs and tenses up too.

One of Pavlov’s dogs, preserved at the Pavlov museum in Russia
What’s so great about classical conditioning?

Well, when an animal learns to associate two things, it means that the first thing will predict the second. You can teach your dog to do anything you want him to, as long as you help him associate the behavior you want from him, to a stimulus you have chosen. Learning to sit for a treat for example is very easy, and the reason why dogs sit when asked to, even if no treat is available, is because they have associated the “sit” command, to something positive (the treat).

Like Pavlov’s dogs would drool even of no food was present, eventually your dog will do anything you want him to, as long as you have followed the three simple steps above, and have helped him make the connection.

Classical conditioning is a huge help when dealing with our rescue dogs’ behavioral problems. I am not an expert, so I won’t give any advice on that. But I am huge fan of that method, actually, I am such a fan that I see it as the only valid method for dog training.


*Careful not to mess up the order of first two steps!

*Remember repetition!

*It doesn’t have to be food. It can be anything that your dog loves (like a ball), but 99% love food.

* Yes, classical conditioning is huge in human behavior, but this is an animal blog!


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