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Classical Conditioning: How Dogs Learn By Association | Pupford

January 23rd, 2023

Filed under Training

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Have you ever marveled at your dog’s ability to know that by putting on a certain pair of shoes means you’re going to take them for a walk? What about her uncanny ability to distinguish the sound of a peanut butter jar opening compared to any other jar?

Things like this happen because our dogs are experts at learning by association, also known as classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning, that’s the one with Ivan Pavlov and – hey look at that – his dog.

While we’re not psychology experts, we are dog experts, so we’re going to get a little deeper into classical conditioning in terms of how it applies to your dog. We’ll cover topics like:

  • What is classical conditioning?
  • How do dogs learn by association?
  • Why is classical conditioning important for your dog?
  • Positive reinforcement and classical conditioning


what is classical conditioning for dogs

While this isn’t a psychology class, having a basic understanding of classical conditioning as a concept is really helpful for understanding how our dogs learn.

Classical conditioning, simply put, is learning through association. This happens when two stimuli get linked together in the brain to produce a learned response.

Before we get into how classical conditioning works, here are some helpful definitions:

  • Unconditioned stimulus (UCS): something that leads to an automatic, unlearned response
  • Conditioned stimulus (CS): something that leads to a learned response
  • Neutral stimulus (NS): something that initially leads to no response before conditioning
  • Unconditioned response (UCR): an automatic, unlearned reaction to a stimulus
  • Conditioned response (CR): a learned reaction to a stimulus

While each scenario of classical conditioning involves a unique set of circumstances, the process typically follows the same pattern:

  • Stage 1: Pre-conditioning – before any conditioning takes place, an UCS produces an UCR. At the same time, a NS is occurring and having no effect
  • Stage 2: Conditioning – the NS occurs at the same time as or (ideally) just before the UCS, it becomes associated with the UCR and now becomes a CR. Conditioning is “complete” when the NS alone produces the CR, thus becoming a CS.
  • Stage 3: Post-conditioning – The CS alone can now elicit the CR

That’s a lot of acronyms and logic to follow, so let’s clarify with a simple example.

Last week you ate an apple. Later that day you came down with a stomach virus. Now, eating an apple makes you nauseous.

Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS): Stomach virus

Neutral Stimulus (NS): Apple

Unconditioned Response (UCR): Nausea from a stomach virus

Conditioned Stimulus (CS)/Conditioned Response (CR): Apple leads to nausea

This is an oversimplification of the process since it often takes many exposures to form the conditioning, but you get the point.

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how do dogs learn by association

Classical conditioning was made famous by Ivan Pavlov’s experiment involving dogs (hey, relevant segway!).

For those not familiar with the experiment, it’s a great way to understand how dogs learn by association. His experiment about conditioning can be broken down like this:

  • He rang a bell in front of the dogs and noted that there was no response, proving it to be a NS
  • He then placed food (UCS) in front of the dogs and noted that they salivated (UCR).
  • He then rang the bell and immediately after presented the food. He repeated this pairing a number of times.
  • Eventually, the sound of the bell alone caused the dogs to salivate.
  • In this case, the bell had become a conditioned stimulus causing the conditioned response of salivation.

If you’re familiar with The Office, you may be aware of the Pavlovian prank Jim pulled on Dwight. He offered him an altoid every time his computer chimed, leading Dwight to eventually salivate and expect an Altoid when the chime sounds... IFKYK.

The dog learned to associate the sound of the bell with food being served.

Dogs learn by association, learning that one thing predicts another. For example, seeing you grab the leash predicts going for a walk. Your dog then creates an association between the leash and walks.

For some dogs, this makes them run to the door with their tails wagging, while others turn away and cower. Why is that? Because associations can be positive or negative, depending on the conditioned response.

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It’s really important to understand how your dog forms associations because they’re often doing it when we don’t even realize it. How often have you caught yourself looking at your dog thinking “how did you learn that?!” – it’s because dogs are forming associations all the time.

While that’s usually not a bad thing (they know that you come home from work means dinner is coming – yay!), sometimes it can be a not-so-great thing.

Let’s look at this example of how subtle choices can affect your dog’s associations:

classical conditioning chart

What could have been done to get a more favorable outcome here?

First, taking a moment to understand how your dog thinks and learns would make all the difference. Since your dog learns by association, you can ask “what can I do to help my dog form a more positive association?”

A solution here would be to observe your dog’s body language. If you notice that an approaching dog stresses your dog out, intervene as early as possible – preferably the second your dog notices the other dog.

Lead your dog in a different direction, diffuse the stress, give a treat or toy, or anything that is more pleasant for your dog. Over time, they will associate the presence of other dogs with the pleasure you’ve created for them!

So while we’re not always intentionally creating associations for our dogs, even our small day-to-day actions play a big role. This is amplified tenfold during training sessions, where we are actively and intentionally helping our dog learn patterns and form associations.


about positive reinforcement dog training and classical conditioning

While positive reinforcement is a different type of learning (operant learning or learning by consequence) it’s still a really important part of your dog’s learning patterns.

Positive reinforcement helps to create more positive associations with behaviors, places, people, etc. Punishment methods of operant learning, on the other hand, can create or exacerbate negative associations – one of the many reasons we favor the positive reinforcement method!


If we want to train our pups more effectively, it's important to understand how they learn! Our dogs are very talented at making associations, especially when rewards are involved, with the sounds, objects, and people in their environment.

We hope this information and these examples helped you better understand how your dog learns. But enough of this serious psychology stuff, it’s time for some fun. What’s the funniest/most unexpected association your dog has made?

I’ll go first – my friend’s dog associates the sound of her laptop closing with the end of the workday, AKA dinner time. Whenever she closes her laptop, her dog runs to his food bowl!

Share yours in the comments!

🐶 Don't miss out on the 100% free online dog training class, 30 Day Perfect Pup. Sign up for free here! 🐶


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