11. Of Time and Emotion

In an earlier post, I mentioned the importance of timing in delivering a reward to your dog after he completes a behavior. One of the reasons that small treats are so useful as rewards is that they can be delivered in a timely fashion. Since dogs, who can do several quick movements in a couple seconds, associate the treat with their most recent behavior, small treats help the trainer adhere accurately to the “deliver the reward within one second” rule.

But there’s a second, more important, reason why we use the “one second” rule: When the reward is immediate, then the sense of happiness and well-being that the dog associates with food will wash backwards onto the previous behavior: The more immediate the reward, the greater the effect. This is called a “conditioned emotional response”. An example would be that look of happy anticipation that your dog gets when you pick up his leash. The leash doesn’t naturally make him happy…he has become conditioned to feeling happy because it predicts a walk.

Suki awaiting her treat after performing a "less desirable behavior".
Suki awaiting her treat after performing a “less desirable behavior”.

When your timing is good, the response is biochemical rather than intellectual. Pavlov’s salivating dogs didn’t think about salivating…it was a response from their autonomic nervous system! There’s a well written scientific explanation here if you want more detail.

Here’s a video (also embedded in the above-referenced page) of Jean Donaldson training her dog to enjoy wearing a Gentle Leader harness which would have otherwise been abhorrent to the dog.

In daily training, this mechanism gradually teaches the dog to actually like doing things it would otherwise avoid, and it’s also crucial in changing a dog’s emotional state towards things it fears.

For example, when Suki sees a moving bicycle at the park, I have her stay, and I feed her tasty treats until the bike is out of range. Bikes really creep her out, so we’re on a long road with this, but her improvement has been substantial.

If you use this element of “classical conditioning” in your training, just remember that the effect washes backwards. The order should be:

  1. Scary stimulus or less preferable (by the dog) behavior, then
  2. emotionally satisfying reward

And remember that anything you ask your dog to do that he wouldn’t choose to do on his own comes under the heading of “less preferable behavior”.

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