The other day my niece did something that was a perfect example of classical conditioning: The Mister Softee song wafted in from the street and she ran to my sister in a kind of blissful panic. An arbitrary sound (you know the song) has been paired with a reward (ice cream!) so many times in her four short years that one now equals the other. If, one time, she heard the song and went out to find a crazy man wielding a chainsaw while juggling kittens, the association might change. You know?
Classical conditioning is all about the signal that tells you what happens next. It is the pairing of two arbitrary things that become linked. The green light that means go. The bell that got Pavlov’s dogs thinking about food. Same thing. You could also say that it is what’s at work when I hear the song “Who Loves The Sun” and think that it’s going to be followed by “Sweet Jane,” thanks to playing my Loaded CD so many times. Of course, MP3 playlists don’t really work like that. Damn Internet.
I digress. I regress: This is an integral part of clicker training: after just a few repetitions, the click sound tells the dog that a treat is on its way. When clicker training a dog, you cannot click without giving a treat. Even if you click by mistake. If you don’t backup the click with a treat, the noise will slowly lose its tight association with treats–and therefore becomes less useful as a training tool. It’s like listening to iTunes and starting to think that Perfect Day is the next song. Totally different album!
The click is called a “conditioned reinforcer” because it is always backed up by something good (the primary reinforcer–in the case of dog training, this usually means food treats). However, I believe that the pure presence of the owner should, in a sense, be a conditioned reinforcer as well. To Amos, just having me in the room is a good thing, thanks to the fact that great things always happen for him when I’m around. In that kind of relationship, there is no room for punishment. Unless I can be sure that I am punishing him at the precise moment and in the precise way so that he understands his error, I risk him just associating the punishment with me. It’ll take a lot of payments into the bank of positive associations to get him to stop always wondering if maybe–just maybe maybe maybe–I’m going to freak out at him for (what he preserves is) no reason. It’ll remain there in his awareness.
When the ice cream truck came around, operant conditioning was soon at work as well.
Classical conditioning is the cat learning that the sound of the can-opener means food is nigh. Operant conditioning is what is going on when the cat learns that meowing at your feet will result in you causing the can-opener to make the happy sound.
Operant conditioning gives control. Instead of a change of a sight (green light) or sound (bell) indicating what comes next, a certain behavior brings about the desired consequences. It’s doing something in order to bring about desired consequences.
If I do X after Y happens, then I’ll get Z.
The operant behavior cued by the sound of the ice cream truck came around? She opened her hand palm up and said “money please.”
Guess what: It worked! The kid is onto something.
(The above photo is from an article about an ice cream truck for dogs. Amos says “Money please!”)