Classical Conditioning, explained with Altoids and a rap song


Classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian Conditioning, is an important element of dog training.

As humans, we’ve been classically conditioned to like money, get hungry at the site of the McDonald’s arches, and to feel bad if we see an “F” on a school assignment. Anytime we have an emotional — or physical — response to an arbitrary stimulus that has come to signify something because of repeated pairing with anything meaningful, we are experiencing the same kind of classically conditioned response Pavlov discovered when he got his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell that had repeatedly been paired with the arrival of food.

Fans of the office might remember Dwight getting classically conditioned to associate a PC’s start up sound with Altoids.

At its foundation, Classical/Pavlovian Conditioning is basically just learning by association.

When training dogs, we often use a hand held clicker (or any other consistent “marker,” be it a whistle or a word or the flash of a light) to highlight a desired action. This stimulus because a tool to pinpoint the exact moment that correct behaviors occur. Before we can use the marker, however, we first have to imbue it with meaning by classically conditioning the dog to understand the relationship between the sound (the click noise, or a word such as “Yes”) and a reward. We do this by first repeatedly pairing presentations of the marker with something meaningful, like a small bit of food.

Classical conditioning has many other uses in dog training. For instance, we can pair something good (the presentation of something really tasty) with something scary (the UPS man or the sound of a blender). With enough repetition, we can make the scary thing into a benevolent sign. Oh, the UPS man is here? That means I get hot dogs! 

I was charmed by this young person’s so-bad-it’s-good video explaining classical conditioning to his classmates in a rap.


Featured illustration of Lego art by Rook, via


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