By Lisa Ellman
All creatures, from amoebas to zebras, are born with innate, or instinctual, behaviors. Innate behaviors are genetically wired into an animal’s central nervous system before they are born and are not learned behaviors but are necessary for the animal’s survival.
One can observe undiluted, innate behaviors in wolves or wild cats because, on the whole, humans have not interfered with their breeding or genetic makeup.
Examples of innate wolf behaviors are mouthing, stalking prey or digging. These behaviors are also instinctual to our domesticated dogs, try as we may to discourage or eliminate them.
You may have a dog that exhibits strong innate behavior, and that can often cause problems in the home. To change or modify a behavior, whether innate or learned, one must “rewire” the animal’s brain. This can be accomplished through techniques called conditioning. Conditioning happens when a response (action) becomes associated with a previously unrelated stimulus.
Different types of conditioning are used to change behaviors. Classical Conditioning or CC, was brought to light by Ivan Pavlov and his now famous dog experiments. Pavlov began his experiments by ringing a bell just before the dogs were fed.
After many trials, Pavlov found that the dogs began salivating at the sound of the bell, anticipating the subsequent meal. The dogs had made a connection between two previously unrelated stimuli — a bell ringing and food.
Classical conditioning is called “involuntary” because the dog does not choose to salivate. An involuntary or automatic response, is called reflexive, because it has now become autonomic; like when a doctor hits your knee with a hammer.
There are no new behaviors learned or any punishment as a result of this new behavior. CC is built on creating relationships between two previously unrelated stimuli through many trials until the dog’s brain has been “re wired.”
Here’s an example that I discovered recently about my own conditioned response. Whenever I went to a Mexican restaurant as a kid, I would hear music playing and it was always Mexican music. I never heard it any other time.
Now 30 years later, whenever I hear that music, I crave Mexican food. I salivate! I smell and taste the salsa and cheese enchiladas I would be eating there. My brain connected these two previously unrelated stimuli (music and food) over years of exposure! Weird!
Simplified, classical conditioning teaches that “B follows A” or in this case, food follows bell (or music in my case!)
Remember that when attempting to change behavior, especially with an older animal, it’s a good idea to consult with your veterinarian to rule out any physical issues and then work with a professional trainer.
There are two additional types of conditioning used to change behaviors in the animal training world and they will be discussed in the next Good Dogma column. Now sit, stay!
Lisa Ellman has been working with a wide range of animals for over 20 years. Her passion, however, is dogs, and in 1996 she founded Good Dogma Obedience Training. With a foundation built on positive reinforcement, Good Dogma provides basic obedience training and behavior modification for the family dog and human members of the pack. Lisa’s comprehensive theory on training is a simple one: “Train the human, condition the dog.” Good Dogma is a monthly feature of Simply Clear Marketing & Media.