Good Dog vs Bad Dog: The Science Behind Conditioning


There once was a man named Ivan Pavlov. He discovered that all the dogs in his experiments would salivate when they saw their food coming (as do I). He began to precede each of their feedings by ringing a bell. The dogs quickly linked the sound of the bell to their food coming, and began salivating simply at the sound. This was to become the foundation of what we call "Classical Conditioning" training.

The What Now?

What this means is the following: animals can learn that every time X happens, Y follows. After an extended period of time, neurons in their brain will then pair those together. History proves, every single time there is a bell, food follows. Therefore sound equals food, even though the bell on it's own doesn't have anything to do with food. Conditioning has many different implications. It can reinforce good behavior, curb bad behavior, and in a lot of ways be the underlying cause of unwanted behavior. 

Using Conditioning to Reinforce Good Behavior

The secret to reinforcing any behavior is all in the timing. Reinforcing good behavior (x) with a reward (y). This can be verbal praise, a treat, a toy, or a pat on the head. Reinforce bad behavior with a consequence. This can be redirecting your attention, a leash correction or telling them ‘no’. For example, when you are calling your dog to come back to you, the moment they turn their body around (this physical change in body movement clearly indicates their intention to come to you) you can bridge that moment in time by saying "GOOD!" (aka the bell! Ding!). If you wait until they come all the way back to you before you say anything, you have missed the moment they made the right decision.

The bridge ("Good") becomes the X factor, the reinforcement (treat or affection) becomes the Y factor. So every time they hear the word, they will pair it with something positive and come back to you!

Using Conditioning to Curb Bad Behavior

Utilizing the same principles, the word "No" becomes the bridge to a consequence for their action. For example, when a dog is jumping on people walking in the front door; if every time you say "OFF!" it is immediately followed by redirecting them down with a leash, the "Off" command becomes the X factor, and a leash correction becomes the Y factor. But X always has to mean Y is coming (good or bad) for those two things to start wiring together.

Self reinforcing behavior is something to consider as well. Things like barking, jumping, and digging are self rewarding. Nothing from you needed! The only effective way to stop these behaviors is by implementing a reinforcement that is greater in value to the dog than their unwanted action. Much like jumping on people when they walk in the door, your reaction has to be immediate and consistent. This can be difficult with behaviors that often happen when the dog is alone. Not giving them the opportunity to make bad decisions can be a more manageable solution. Utilizing crate training, blocking them from being able to see things to bark at, or not allowing free access to a yard to dig when no one is home can all be used in the conditioning process as well. 

For more stories, tips and tricks on training or if you have any questions please visit our website at or email Andrea at

Andrea Robinson