What can Florence and the Machine teach us about dog training?

So far in this series, I have already written about lions, the M4 metro and tattoos. Now it’s time for Florence and the Machine, because accidentally, they can teach us a lot about classical conditioning.

For starters, I will briefly summarise what classical conditioning is: basically classical conditioning means that we (nearly) always have an emotional attachment to stuff – whether it is an object, an activity or a word – we call it the emotional response.

  • For example, if my driving instructor was nice, I am likely to have positive emotions when I think about driving or when I get into the car.
  • Or if every time our partner says “we need to talk”, an uncomfortable conversation follows, we will feel stressed hearing those words in other contexts too.

A typical dog training example is the clicker – it doesn’t mean anything to the dog, but if a the click is always followed by a delicious treat, the dog will be excited by the sound of the clicker and probably also by the clicker itself. Or, if the dog was once run over by a cyclist, they may react with fear to cyclists afterwards.

In training, we usually want to change how the dog reacts to certain stimuli – dogs, men, vehicles, fireworks… And behaviour can only change permanently if the emotional response to the stimulus in question has changed as well.

This is where counter-conditioning comes in: we try to associate something that was foretelling a bad thing, with something good, in order to change the dog’s reaction to it. So for example, each time a cyclist appears, we always give our dog a handful of their favorite treats.

It’s very easy to give up on counter conditioning because it often seems like it “doesn’t work”. It’s partly because there are specific conditions that need to be fulfilled for counter-conditioning to be effective. But – in my opinion – the biggest problem is that we tend to greatly underestimate the power of conditioning, and therefore we also underestimate how difficult counter-conditioning is.

Finally, this is where poor Florence and the Machine comes in.
Florence and the Machine was one of my favourite artists. They had just released a new album last spring, and I listened to them a lot in May and June, when it becoming increasingly clear that Leus had a tumor and wasn’t going to get better. Needless to say, I haven’t been able to listen to this album at all since we put her to sleep. But my negative emotional response immediately generalised to all of Florence and the Machine’s work.

For a very long time I couldn’t listen to them at all, Florence’s voice made me want to cry. Only after about three quarters of a year that I was able to bring myself to try to listen to a song of theirs from time to time. Right now this is still all that I can do: I listen to one of their songs and then switch to another artist. But I still can’t listen to last year’s album at all

And this is the power of classical conditioning, and this is why counter-conditioning is so incredibly difficult. An emotional response, once conditioned, remains very strong – both in us, and in our dogs.

Obviously counter-conditioning is not the only tool we have in behavior therapy, but it’s a very important part of it. And unfortunately it’s not an easy, simple or quick process at all. Let’s be patient with our dogs (and ourselves).