Conceptual Tools – Respondent Conditioning and Learned Helplessness

What if my puppy is beyond the sensitive period and already a juvenile? In this chapter, we share with you the learning concepts in play when we train dogs of all ages.

There are two main branches – Respondent Conditioning and Instrumental (Operant) Learning. These are not two different schools of thought, and neither can each of these be applied singularly. Conversely, dog trainers will do well to integrate these concepts in the overall training plan for their clients’ dogs.

Let’s start with Pavlov and Respondent Conditioning. Contrary to popular belief, Pavlov did not set out to learn about the dogs’ ability to associate a sound with the arrival of food. He wanted to test if different kinds of food will elicit salivation of different intensities in dogs. Through serendipity, Pavlov discovered that the dogs will start salivating as soon as the bell connected to the laboratory’s door rang, predicting the appearance of a human and therefore presumably food. The final equation for Respondent Conditioning therefore, is:


              To be more complete, there are three steps in total:


CS + UCS = UCR (repeat)


An unconditioned stimulus (UCS) elicits an instinctive (respondent) response (UCR). A hungry dog salivates when it smells the aroma emanating from the kitchen. A tap on the knee results in an involuntary jerk on one’s lower leg. Adding a conditioned stimulus aka neural signal (CS) consistently and repeatedly before the unconditioned stimulus continues to give rise to the instinctive response. Ringing a bell brings the waitress to the kitchen portlet to retrieve the next serving of food for the restaurant’s customers. Repeating the same routine a hundred times and then ringing the 101st bell will very likely result in the waitress’ appearance at the portlet even though the restaurant has closed for the evening. When the conditioned stimulus, an artificially added signal, repeatedly appears before the unconditioned stimulus, the former becomes the predictor of the latter and the instinctive response is elicited regardless if the latter is present or not. Once we have the final equation, we can state definitively that respondent conditioning has taken place. Note the choice of words though, as the whole process involves a conditioned reflex. Hardly any learning has taken place.

What Pavlov discovered by chance has multi-faceted implications for us in conditioning our dogs to life in Singapore’s urbanised environment. Habituation for instance, involved repeated exposure to the UCS at fixed intensity over a long period, to allow the dog to realise that its UCR will not remove / reduce the occurrence / intensity of the UCS. This is one of the methods to achieve learned helplessness, a concept that we need to explain clearly at this juncture.

Learned helplessness is a grossly maligned dog training concept. The diehard fans of positive-reinforcement-only training talked about learned helplessness like a racist swear word. We would like to remain objective and not apply labels to scientific concepts. Everyone has a certain degree of learned helplessness. Most humans for instance, do not wake up lamenting why the sun rises at about 7a.m every morning in Singapore. We learn to accept that as a fact of life and move on, adapting and changing our life circumstances without actively seeking out a way to destroy the sun. Night shift workers for instance, learnt to put up curtains or blinds to darken their rooms so that they could rest while the rest of us awaken for the day’s work. These night shift workers have learnt that they are helpless when it comes to the sun rising up at 7a.m but they are not helpless when it comes to re-designing their rooms. These workers are operant (operate on their environment to benefit themselves) and channelled their resources to the problem-solving aspect rather than to sit around and suffer the detrimental effects of sunlight when sleeping.

In a seminal article published in 2016 by Maier and Seligman, the duo posited that helplessness is not learned; it is the default response to prolonged aversive events, and it is mediated by the serotonergic activity of the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), which in turn inhibits escape responses.[1] What was missing in the shuttle box experiments conducted in the early-1960s on dogs was the perception of control – the dogs involved in the experiments were not given a chance to learn control, with the activity of the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC), which promotes the detection of control leading to the automatic inhibition of the DRN. Learning control is largely a process of instrumental learning and dogs learn to act in accordance with the outcomes produced by their actions. Through instrumental learning, alterations in the ventromedial PFC circuitry at an early agelearning how to switch off stressors aka escapable stress – creates a specific and persistent change in the prelimbic-dorsal raphe nucleus circuit that led to the inhibition of the dorsal raphe nucleus and prevented passivity in response to even inescapable stress.

Therefore, it is not that Learned Helpless is a detrimental state of being that should be avoided but the lack of instrumental learning at the sensitive period and beyond that leads to a state of passivity in dogs as default. These dogs are unable to escape stressors or perceive the possibility of control because they have always been in a passive position in relation to their environment. This state of passivity is induced by their human owners and such circumstances are prevalent among the pet owners, unlike the handlers in the working dog world where instrumental learning is a requirement for the dogs to attain their proficiencies. A very common exercise we do is to allow dogs on walks to choose the direction of the walk, using their keen sense of olfaction. Yet the most common training objective we hear from our pet dog client is “I want my dog to follow me for the walk and not pull me in all directions.” For us, the dog’s ability to walk politely alongside the human handler is to lead to the eventual arrival at an off-leash dog run where the dog can run free, following its senses. Our purpose of loose-leash walking training is not to make the owner appear in absolute control of the dog.

Going back to the concept of habituation where the dog realises that its UCR will not remove / reduce the occurrence / intensity of the UCS. Yes, the dog has reached a state of learned helplessness in relation to the aversive stimulus but is the dog able to direct its energy to alternative measures to “solve the problem” rather than sit around and suffer in silence, just like what the night shift workers would have done when they discovered that they could never destroy the sun. We had a client whose dog would panic whenever he started his car engine in the garage. The dog would rush to its bed, located about three metres away from the garage door, sat on the bed and started barking at the garage door. The circumstances worsened eventually as the dog started to “act up” whenever the client walked down the stairs, regardless if he was going to start his car or not. The dog also generalised its hatred of engine sounds to all vehicles with running engines, in motion or parked, by barking at the vehicles it encountered on walks.

Clearly the visual image of the human walking down the stairs (Cs) is a predictor of the eventuality of a loud roaring engine (UCS) and the UCR was to rush to the haven (bed) and barked at the engine sound until the vehicle pulled out of the garage. While the UCR was initially an instinctive response out of fear of the sudden loud engine noise (client drove a Nissan GTR with a 3.5 litres V8 engine), the dog would have learnt that barking at the sound appeared to have remove it. This is instrumental learning at play and the evidence was the generalisation of the barking behaviour to all vehicles encountered outside of its home. There are many solutions to this quagmire but the client insisted that he would not change his vehicle nor park it outdoors. The conclusion therefore, was to “train” his dog to accept the engine noise. There are multiple concepts involved in the behaviour modification plan but for the purpose of the current discussion, we shall examine the habituation portion only.

We got the client to record the sound of his car being started while the dog was out of the house. He was to play this recording using his home theatre system / IP camera, depending on whether he is out at work or at home, at regular intervals – once every four hours – daily, when his dog is awake and minding its own business. He shall not play it if his dog is asleep, even if it is time to play the recording. The recording shall only be switched off immediately after the dog paused its barking. The client struggled with the impeccable timing required to switch off the recording. Over time though, he caught the rhythm and was able to accurately tell when his dog will pause to take a breather. Three weeks in, the duration between the first bark and the first pause shortened from three minutes to one minute and forty seconds. We then decreased the frequency of playing the recording to once every five hours. The duration shortened again and we decreased the frequency in response. After 8 weeks of hard work, the dog merely runs to its bed and chewed its Kong. There were other measures at play too and we shall discuss these now.

The habituation process described earlier was executed concurrently with the Classical Extinction protocol. The client’s movement down the stairs cannot be the trigger for his dog to run to the bed and start barking because that would result in a severely stressed dog, or our client needs to stop inhabiting the upper floors of his home. We found out that our client is a car lover and much of his recreational time was spent tinkering with this beloved car. Therefore, he has a high frequency of walking down the stairs and entering the garage immediately, even on weekends. Classical extinction is a process of decoupling the CS and UCS. Our client had to consciously walk down the stairs and move to other places on the ground floor to break the expectation of engine noise in his dog’s mind. Should he need to move to the garage after walking down the stairs, our client first had to move to the kitchen or garden, attract the attention of his dog and call it over for a treat before moving to the garage. He was also not permitted to ignite his car engine unless his trip to the garage coincided with the pre-planned timing to play the sound recording. There was an additional condition – if our client had to ignite his engine and that it was the right timing to do so, he had to ignite the engine and then get ready to present a treat to his dog at the first pause. A chew treat that takes some time to ingest is preferred. What he is doing is Classical Counterconditioning where the CS (walking down the stairs) predicts the appearance of something pleasurable (treats) and then the UCS of the engine noise predicting the appearance of something pleasurable again (chew treats). There is an element of Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviours as well because our client is specifically delivering a pleasurable outcome the moment the dog stopped barking and it is unlikely for a dog to bark and chew its treat at the same time.

We also advised the client to move the dog’s haven to a farther corner of the house, away from the garage door. This allowed us to start tinkering with the volume of the engine noise recording. We started playing the recording at 10% of actual volume and gradually increased it over the weeks. This is known as Systematic De-sensitisation and the exposures to the noise recording were gradually intensified. Over time, the chew treat was replaced with a chew toy with some Kong mousse spread over it. The dog expressed its hatred of the engine noise by chewing the toy vehemently and getting some pleasurable outcomes at the same time. The dog also formed the habit of running off to the owner whenever he came down the stairs and waited at the kitchen counter or the entrance to the garden for a treat or two. As the habit solidify, we advised our client to be more random at dispensing treats and add in demands for certain behaviours such as roll over or play dead before treats are given. Here, the element of instrumental learning is incorporated. The dog learnt to expect control and the levers of control are in fact the alternate or incompatible behaviours vis-à-vis barking. The entire behaviour change plan would not be possible if we utilised either Respondent Conditioning or Instrumental Learning; we needed both in an integrated way.

Lastly, we would like to explain the concept of Flooding, which was not applied in the case study delineated in preceding paragraphs. Flooding is something Cesar Millan did in his past videos on The Dog Whisperer where he grabbed a small dog firmly while the female owner presented a grooming scissors to trim the facial fur. We would like to watch him do it to a Rottweiler or Tibetan Mastiff. Flooding therefore, is presenting the CS or UCS at full intensity or extreme intensity until the UCR terminates. If the dog is afraid of engine noises, lock the dog in the garage, play the engine noise recording at the maximum and tether the dog to a fixture in the garage until it stopped barking. This was what Maier and Seligman meant by objective helplessness – animal is objectively helpless with respect to an important outcome (O) such as shock offset if the probability of (O), given a response (R) is not different from the probability of (O) given the absence of that response (notR). When this is true of all responses, objective helplessness exists. Such an animal is in a state of depression.

We will cover instrumental learning in Chapter 4, together with the building of drive and engagement in our dogs. Stay tuned.


[1] Maier & Seligman, Learned Helplessness at Fifty: Insights from Neuroscience, Psychol Rev. 2016 July; 123(4): 349–367.