This morning, after a ferocious clap of thunder, I was reminded of the power of classical conditioning. Most of us know the story of how Ivan Pavlov in 1902 showed how classical conditioning can be used to make a dog salivate to the sound of a bell. Every time a bell was rung the dogs in his lab got food. After a number of repetitions of this procedure, the ringing of the bell caused the dogs to salivate even before the food was presented. The dogs had learned to associate the bell with the food. This response was learned, or conditioned, so it is called a conditioned response.
Pavlov also discovered that for the association to be made, the two stimuli had to be paired together closely in time. For all of you science wonks out there, this is how it works.
Every time your dog runs into the kitchen at the sound of his bowl because he knows it’s dinner, gets excited when you pick up the leash because he associates it with a walk, gets anxious when you pick up your car keys and purse because he know you’re about to leave, gets happy when you pick up the clicker because he knows a training session is about to begin, or growls and barks at another dog because one time he was attacked, are all examples of classical conditioning.
So what does all of this have to do with thunder? In some dogs the sound of thunder may send them cowering under the coffee table. Early life experiences can contribute to sound sensitivity. Very young puppies have little or no fear of novel sounds and experiences. From 3 weeks to about 8 weeks of age is an ideal time to introduce puppies to all kinds of sounds. Sounds they hear at this age, especially paired with something positive, will most likely not be scary later. As they get older, fear can increase. Puppies that are given early and positive experiences of novel sights and sounds are less likely to develop problems down the road.
Desensitization, gradually increasing the intensity of the stimulus while keeping the dog below the fear threshold, is often paired with classical counter conditioning (changing the association of the sound or event from a negative to a positive). Together they can help restore a sound sensitive dog’s confidence. This entails exposing the dog to the upsetting noise in gradually increasing increments while providing him with positive reinforcement such as high-value food.
Here is an illuminating video on counter conditioning, or changing an association from a negative to a positive experience.
So what did my 7 year old border collie Decker do when that loud clap of thunder reverberated through the house this morning? He got excited and began to search for a toy. Odd behavior, right? Nope. From the earliest moment that I brought Decker home, every time it thundered, which is often in south Florida during the summer, I would become very excited and animated, quickly grab a toy and engage him in a short game of tug, one of his highest valued activities. Over a short period of time, he associated the peal of thunder with something fun, and actively searched out a toy to play with me. Preventing a problem, not waiting to treat one, is classical conditioning at its best. Thanks, Pavlov!
If your dog is suffering from a behavior problem, consult a behaviorist or a trainer who is familiar with working with phobias and fears.