AN INTRODUCTION TO CLASSICAL CONDITIONING
Classical conditioning is the science of associations. Perhaps the most famous examples of classical conditioning were Pavlovís dogs, which learned that dinner was always preceded by the ringing of a bell, and thus began to salivate any time that noise was heard. But classical conditioning affects the behavior of our cats in ways much more significant than drooling over odd noises!
A simple way to distinguish classical conditioning from operant conditioning is this: If the animalís behavior or actions influence what happens to him, operant conditioning is at work. If the animalís actions do not influence the outcome of events, classical conditioning is taking place.
Pavlovís dogs did not have to salivate when the bell rang in order to get their dinner. Dinner always followed the bellís ring, which induced such a state of anticipation that the dogs would salivate unconsciously. This is classical conditioning. If you refuse to put your dogís dinner bowl down for her until she sits quietly, you are taking advantage of operant conditioning.
And now for a bit of training trivia; studies have found that if a classically conditioned response is placed in conflict with an operantly conditioned behavior, the classically conditioned response will prevail.
You might ask how classical conditioning could be of use to you, since it cannot be used to teach an actual behavior such as ďsitĒ or ďcome.Ē Classical conditioning is beneficial because it can be used to make profound changes in how your cat feels about the situations heís placed in.
CONDITIONED EMOTIONAL RESPONSES
Classical conditioning can explain how we develop emotional responses to certain objects, events, and places.
In an infamous 1920 experiment, researcher John Watson put a rat in the playpen of a baby named Albert, who had no innate fear of the rodent. Then, in a fine display of scientific compassion, Watson made a loud noise to frighten Albert. After pairing the presentation of the rat and the sound several times, Watson placed the rat in the playpen but did not make the noise. Even without the noise, Albert feared the rat. He had developed a conditioned emotional response to the rodent.
Conditioned emotional responses can be developed either deliberately or (more often) accidentally and are very resistant to change. Does your cat get excited when he sees his food dish? Thatís a conditioned emotional response.
Some fears are conditioned emotional responses; others are innate or instinctive. Fears develop as a result of traumatic experiences (an abused cat cowers at a raised hand), lack of exposure/socialization (fear of the unknown), or in some cases they simply exist (how many of us can explain why we are afraid of spiders?).
Undesirable conditioned emotional responses can often be overcome through two classical conditioning concepts: Counterconditioning and desensitization.
Counterconditioning involves exposing the animal to a low level of whatever bothers it, and simultaneously presenting something positive. When done correctly, this causes the animal to like whatever nasty thing you started out with, such as a loud noise. You are conditioning a response that counters the catís current reaction. You might not like getting rained on, but if $20 bills started piling up in your hand whenever it started raining, I'll bet you'd be hunting down cloudbursts in short order!
Negative counterconditioning is also possible, although rarely useful. Conditioned taste aversion has been used to keep coyotes from attacking sheep. Farmers have begun lacing the wool with a substance that nauseates the coyotes. After a couple of tastes, the coyotes learn to avoid sheep.
Desensitization involves doing that same nasty thing over and over again until the animal gets used to it. Desensitization and counterconditioning work together; if you are counterconditioning a cat to something, he is automatically being desensitized to it in the process.
TRAINING WITH CLASSICAL CONDITIONING
Letís say you want to be able to trim your servalís claws, but he hates having his paws handled. If you touch his paw briefly, then immediately give him one of his very favorite treats, the positive aspect of that experience will outweigh any negative feelings he had about the fact that you touched his paw.
After this sequence has been repeated over and over again, that brief touch on the paw will come to signify ďOh, goody, Iím getting a treat!Ē Then you can make the touch longer, gradually progress to picking up the paw, and finally ease into actually clipping the nail. Through classical conditioning, you have transformed him from an intractable beast to a cat that actually enjoys nail-trimming time. This is an oversimplification of the training process, but it serves as an example of what you can accomplish.
It should also be mentioned that classical and operant conditioning are not always distinct from each other. Revisiting the nail-clipping scenario, we can see that classical conditioning is changing the catís associations from negative to positive: Having my paw touched is fun; It means Iím getting a treat. But at the same time, the cat is actively learning something: If I hold still while my paw is handled, I get a treat. That is operant conditioning at work.
NEXT ISSUE: CRATE EXPECTATIONS
Next up, Iíll drop the tedious scientific background and present complete instructions for training exotic felines to enter a travel crate on cue. A future article will take on the pungent issue of litterbox problems. If you have tips or stories on these topics to share, please drop me a line. Iím also soliciting suggestions for future article topics; you can e-mail me with your input at email@example.com.
Jessi Clark-White is a professional dog behaviorist, emergency dispatcher, and first-time exotic cat owner. Her articles have appeared in DogSports Magazine, the AKC Gazette, Off Lead, Forward!, NADOI News, and The Siuslaw News, as well as on her websites www.K-911dogtraining.com and www.AfricanServal.com. She is currently writing a book on care, training, and the politics of living with servals.
Article copyright 2003 by Jessi Clark-White. Please e-mail me if your are interested in obtaining reprint permission.
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