Classical conditioning refers to a learning process where learning occurs by association. You condition your dog’s innate reflexes to react to subtle signals. Over time, your dog learns to associate the signal with the event. Mastering the concept of classical conditioning will help you understand how your dog understands, relates to and interprets information.

This form of learning is also known as Pavlovian or associative learning. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who discovered that dogs automatically salivated when presented with food. He trained his dogs to associated the ringing of a bell with the presentation of food, and eventually was able to make the dogs salivate with only the ringing of a bell.

PAVLOV’S Principles of Classical Conditioning

  1. The unconditioned response was the dogs’ natural salivation in response to seeing or smelling their food.
  2. The unconditioned stimulus was the sight or smell of the food itself.
  3. The conditioned stimulus was the ringing of the bell, which previously had no association with food.
  4. The conditioned response, therefore, was the salivation of the dogs in response to the ringing of the bell, even when no food was present.


Unknowingly, you may have already applied the principals of classical conditioning to your dog. If your dog enjoys walks, and associates the sound of his leash being removed from its spot with an imminent walk, does he get excited just by hearing the leash? That’s classical conditioning at work.

A less fun example may be your dog’s reaction to the vet. Under normal circumstances, he may not have a problem being touched by strangers. But unpleasant memories of previous vet visits may make him associate the vet with stress and discomfort, causing uncharacteristic fear or aggression.

Another common example occurs when new puppy owners first start taking their pup out on a leash. When they encounter another dog, the new pet parent will protectively tense and hold the leash tight when they encounter another dog. It’s understandable. It’s an instinctive response. But the unintentional result can be your dog mirroring your tense, protective behavior whenever he sees another dog on a walk.

in a nutshell

Legendary animal behaviorist, Bob Bailey, whose credits include being the Director of Training for the US Navy Marine Mammal Program, explains classical conditioning this way: your dog develops a positive, negative or neutral association with all of the stimuli around him. Simply put, when you’re training your dog, everything counts.