Has Pavlov Left the Building?

We all know that Elvis has left the building (and Fraiser too). But has Pavlov also left the building?

Recently back home from Clicker Expo in San Francisco, we continue to puzzle over what seems to be an emerging trend among some of the presenters at the conference. In traditional learning theory we view learning from two perspectives; i.e. that of classical conditioning and operant conditioning. In a number of presentations at the conference we found an approach to learning that was purely operant, seemingly disregarding the aspects of learning that are classically conditioned. In fact, one presenter even argued that we might as well disregard classical conditioning altogether as all learning, from his point of view, is really operant. This presenter proceeded to show a video clip of a counter conditioning session (done by someone else) and argued that the dog’s emotional response was not being changed but that it was simply learning a new operant response. Another presenter spoke of establishing the association between a neutral stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus, in this case done in order to condition a secondary/substitute reinforcer, as an operant process, that could be viewed “as a behavior that you can reinforce”. In contrast to this purely operant approach, renowned presenters like Susan Friedman and Kathy Sdao continue to use the terminology of both operant and classical conditioning when speaking of the different aspects of learning and different ways of changing behavior. Hence, the reason why we feel inclined to ask the question; “Has Pavlov Left the Building?” After all, a conference on training and learning must be the very place to present and discuss the various aspects of learning in all its nuances, not a place to cut corners or trivialize the importance of knowing one’s tools and techniques.

When we train dogs and other animals to perform a variety of behaviors, our immediate goals are, indisputably, operant. To put it simply, we wish to teach the animal to perform certain behaviors on cue. The behaviors are brought under stimulus control so that we can get reliable performance of the desired behaviors when the learned cues are presented. However, when we work with animals, it is also important to consider the emotional state of the learner. Consequently, we cannot disregard the fact that classical conditioning is continually taking place – while we are busy at work changing the operant skills of our learner. Also, some aspects of our training and some of the tools we use are a product of classical conditioning. This goes for our conditioned marker signals and substitute reinforcers but also associations between cues and behaviors and between behaviors and reinforcers are classically conditioned. Cues and behaviors as well as training locations and training equipment all take on a value for the learner, of either pleasure or discomfort, depending on the training techniques employed. In our opinion, this is no small matter and certainly not one to be disregarded when discussing, planning, or executing training with animals.

We humans like to organize things, e.g. concepts, into nice and orderly categories. Textbooks on learning distinguish between the two types of conditioning. However, in real life things are not quite as neatly organized. Classical and operant conditioning are indeed separate ways of learning. We know this from studies of how and where these processes take place in the brain. But in real life learning situations we cannot separate the two completely or simply choose to disregard the one. Classical and operant conditioning go hand in hand and in most situations take place at the same time. What is learned differs, depending on whether you take a respondent or an operant view of a given situation but they are both part and parcel of any learning situation in which we look to change the behavior of our learner. This goes for any training in which the primary objective is to change the operant behavior of the animal.

When dealing with animals with behavior issues such as fear and aggression, it is even more important to consider classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is essential both in order to understand the conditioned emotional response (CER) that motivates the operant responses that are considered problematic and in order to know and employ counter conditioning as a central approach to change the CER and in that way change the behavioral output that is motivated by the animal’s emotional state. We do not dispute the fact that operant training can change the emotional state of an animal through the empowerment gained by acquiring a sense of operant control in a stressful situation and through the classical conditioning that takes place when a certain behavior is heavily associated with attractive reinforcers. But operant conditioning does not do the trick alone, nor does it suffice to explain all aspects of learning when we teach, train or learn…

We wonder if this tendency to view all learning from an operant perspective springs from on the one hand a purely Skinnerian approach to learning and on the other what can be conceived as a limited interest in the motivational and emotional aspects of behavior.