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Novel Stimulus & Pavlov’s Dog

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

It is very rewarding to work with puppies. One of the most valuable tools a puppy in this age range can be taught is a positive emotional response to novel stimulus – a positive CER. Pups that have been taught a positive CER greet new things with confidence and curiosity.

This becomes an automatic response in the pups – it isn’t a decision they consciously make. In layman’s terms, to the pups, something new means treats, or something else they like, is closely to follow, and that their interaction with this stimulus/item makes this happen even faster. Something new is cause for investigation, not concern. Once the new thing is figured out, the pups go back to work or to play (which is also work.) This teaches the pups to use their brains and reasoning skills from a very early age.

As I work with my dogs, I imagine Dr. Pavlov at my left shoulder because what he learned through his experiments with how animals learn is so profound. Just in case there might possibly be someone out there who isn’t as much of a training geek as I am, let me you tell you about Pavlov’s dogs.

When I was in High School, I became aware of Dr. Ivan Pavlov and his experiments with dogs. His laboratory subjects learned that whenever they heard a bell, food would be forthcoming. Very soon, Dr. Pavolv’s dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell. This was not a decision on the part of the dog – it was an automatic physiological response to stimulus; a conditioned response. Dr. Pavlov’s goal in his experiment was to measure the output of saliva; what he stumbled upon had much greater significance.

Using a clicker, treats, and new items to investigate, or new experiences, I can teach the pups an association between the new thing and good things. The clicker is very important in this because it marks the exact moment the pup did what he is now being paid for. Yes, feeding puppies snacks while standing around the new, plastic swimming pool you just sailed over the fence to them can be a positive experience, but this training is vague.

To compare how I am using what Dr. Pavlov learned: The new item or experience comes to function as Pavlov’s bell, the marker sound lets the pups know what they did that is about to get them paid, and the treat is their reward.

The sound of the clicker is novel to any other sound the puppies hear, and it sounds the same in any person’s hands, so a variety of people can train puppies with me because of this continuity. After the first couple of training sessions, the sound of the clicker itself is cause for celebration because of what the pups have learned will follow. This can be used to great advantage in other training situations. Please see the blog about using a clicker to teach confidence – found further along in this text.

This ten month old pup (our Topaz) espressed curiosity in the barrel the other day. It was new to her. I tipped it over- and this is what she did. A positive CER in action! Way cool!

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