How Animals Learn- Part 1: Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning = hand holding clicker arrow brown lab happy face with a pink heart thought bubble

“In the context of animal behavior and training, learning is defined as the modification of behavior through practice, training or experience.”

To better understand the animals in our care, it would help to understand some basics of behavior modification training. There are two types of learning processes or conditioning. They are classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Let’s just focus on classical conditioning first.

In classical conditioning there is an unconditioned stimulus (Food/treat) that creates a natural reaction called an unconditioned response (salivation/reinforcement). A conditioned stimulus (bell ringing/clicker/marker) begins as an unconditioned stimulus with an unconditioned response that comes to elicit a conditioned response (salivation/reinforcement) when paired with another unconditioned stimulus (food/treat).

Summary Definitions (because seeing things in different ways can help piece it all together)

Unconditioned Stimulus: Any stimulus possessing the capacity to elicit reactions from organisms in the absence of prior conditioning.

Conditioned Stimulus: Any stimulus to which a reflex response has been conditioned by previous training or experience through pairing or association.

Unconditioned Response: Behavior that occurs naturally due to an unconditioned stimulus; an unlearned response

Conditioned Response: A reflex response elicited by a conditioned stimulus alone in the absence of the unconditioned stimulus after a number of pairings on the conditioned stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus.

Note: Don’t get confused by other names- Classical conditioning is also sometimes called Pavlovian conditioning, associative learning, reflexive conditioning, or respondent conditioning. That’s a lot of names to keep up with for just one thing. Luckily, “classical conditioning” is pretty standard.

**Key Points**

1. Classical conditioning is learning by association.

2. Classical conditioning is an involuntary, or automatic response to a stimulus.

3. In training we use classical conditioning to give meaning to cues (saying “sit”) and symbolic language (clicker) and to change the value of general events or stimuli.

4. Classical conditioning can only be used to form an involuntary behavior, not directly used to form voluntary behavior

5. This form of learning is happening constantly! So consider what associations your dog (cat, bird, etc) is having with the environment and make sure it is positive.

Okay, so that is actually a lot to take in, and there are so many classes, books, journal articles, and courses specifically about this, so don’t get down if it isn’t immediately making sense… or never fully does. You are here to be the best animal caregiver, not a professional trainer, so let’s get to how this helps you and your fur friend!

Classical conditioning is how dolphins know that whistle means they did the behavior right and they are going to get reinforced, how dogs learn the exact moment they did something right when they hear the sound of a clicker, and how you can help your animal through environmental fears.

There are pros in cons to different bridge options. Some use a clicker, whistle, or a single syllable word said with the same tone (Note: not “good boy/girl” because that is valuable to use as a secondary reinforcer). In the aquarium world they even use a light as a bridge to mark the exact moment for reinforcement under the water! In the dog world, a bridge has been commonly called a marker, so I will use “marker/mark” instead of “bridging/bridge” in the next behavior Learning Portal post.

Keep following our Learning Portal and email to dive deeper into what is a marker, how to desensitize and counter condition, and much more!


Saunders Comprehensive Veterinary Dictionary

Animal Training by Ken Ramirez

Animal Training 101 by Jenifer A. Zeligs, PH.D.

Ivan Petrovitch Pavlov (1849-1936) Conditioned reflexes. (1969). JAMA 209(13), 2050-2051

*Knoll, J., Knoll, J. (2005). The brain and its self: A neurochemical concept of the innate and acquired drives. Germany: Springer

Written by: Dr. Emily Hall, DVM, CCRT, CPAT-KA