You may have heard of the famous experiment where a scientist trained a group of dogs to drool when they heard a bell ring. But do you know what that experiment was really about? And do you know how this knowledge can change your cat’s behavior?
A Brief History of Drooling Dogs
Ivan Pavlov was a Russian psychologist working in the 1890’s. He was studying reflexes, i.e. behaviors that aren’t learned or controlled, when he accidently learned a whole lot more.
To study the doggie drool reflex, Pavlov placed dogs in a study room and presented them with food, which caused them to drool. Over time, he noticed that the dogs began drooling when they saw him walk into the room, whether or not he had the food at the time. With time, the dogs began drooling as soon as they came into the study room. Curious, Pavlov ran an experiment where he rang a bell (which initially had no effect on the dogs) and then immediately placed food in front of the dogs (causing them to drool). With repetition, the dogs began to drool as soon as they heard the bell ring.
When the dogs drooled over food, this was an unlearned reflex. They did it from day one. But drooling when they heard the bell? That was a learned behavior; it developed over time as they experienced the pairing of the bell and getting fed. The dogs created an association between the bell and the food and this caused the reflex to get linked to both.
More Than Drool
Here’s the important part: it turns out that emotional responses can be associated with people, places, events, etc. through this same process. A child may not have any particular feeling about going to a neighbor’s house the first time. However if the neighbor always has cookies, the child will quickly form the opinion that the neighbor is great. On the flip side, a child may learn to fear a doctor who gives them a shot every time they see each other.
This process is called “Pavlovian conditioning” or “classical conditioning” and can have a big effect of the lives of both people and animals. It looks like this:
Stimulus A -> Emotion or Reflex (No Learning Necessary)
Stimulus B -> Stimulus A -> Emotion or Reflex
(With time or repetitions)
Stimulus B -> Emotion or Reflex (Learned)
The “stimulus” refers to something the individual perceives around them. From here on, I’ll refer to cats only but know that this applies to anything that can learn, including humans. For your cat, a stimulus could be a person (ex. you), object (ex. cat carrier), sound (ex. cat opener), place (ex. the kitchen), smell (ex. another cat), etc.
Why You Should Care
So why should you care about drooling dogs and classical conditioning? Because so much of your cat’s behavior is linked to their emotions and because classical conditioning gives you a powerful tool for changing your cat’s behavior.
We can’t train a cat to not be afraid in the same way we train a dog to “sit” (or a cat to “sit” for that matter). Emotions can’t be reinforced or punished in the same way behaviors can. Instead we link a stimulus (again, this could be nearly anything that the cat preceives) to a second stimulus that already produces strong emotions (food typically). By consistently linking the two, the emotion becomes connected to both stimuli.
These emotional connections can cause a wide-range of behaviors and dramatically affect our relationship with our cats.
Here are a couple examples of how classical conditioning can work for us or against us:
For Us: When the cat rubs against the brush they enjoy the feeling. Soon they approach whenever they see the brush.
Against Us: The brush pulls mats in the cat’s coat and causes discomfort and pain. The cat hides under the bed when they see the brush.
Example: Being Picked Up
For Us: When the cat is picked up they feel securely supported. They get attention and petting in a way they enjoy. The cat allows pick up with a relaxed body and chooses to remain close to the person handling them.
Against Us: When the cat is picked up it is uncomfortable or painful. Being picked up leads to other uncomfortable or unfamiliar handling. The cat begins to hiss or swat when the person tries to pick them up.
The cat’s experience and perception of the situation drive the learned association. This is one reason why behavior can seem inconsistent.
Making A Change
Classical conditioning refers to creating an association to begin with. Classical “counterconditioning” means changing an already existing association. Often just referred to as “counterconditioning”, the goal is generally to change a negative association into a positive one. If your cat dislikes something, avoids or runs away from someone, or becomes defensively aggressive, counterconditioning is likely going to part of changing their behavior. Counterconditioning was a big part of former feral Sandy’s transition to happy indoor cat.
Counterconditioning pairs a stimulus that your cat has a negative reaction to with something that has a very strong positive association in order to change the cat’s association and behavior. Let’s call that positive thing the “good stuff”. Good stuff is something that your cat already loves; food is usually the best tool here. If you don’t already know of a special treat that causes your cat to come running, now is the time to find one.
Here’s our equation with this goal in mind: (Remember, a “stimulus” can be nearly anything)
“Good Stuff” -> Positive Reaction
Stimulus -> Negative Reaction
Stimulus -> “Good Stuff” -> Positive Reaction
Stimulus -> Positive Reaction
Order really matters. For this learning to happen, the negative stimulus has to right before the good stuff, not the other way around.
Also, during this process the negative has to be presented at a level that lets your cat still enjoy their good stuff. To do that we’ll employ “desensitization.”
Desensitization is the process of slowly increasing the intensity of a stimulus starting at a level that causes no negative reaction. When done properly, no negative reaction is seen at any point.
Desensitization combined with counterconditioning is one of the most effectively building blocks for changing emotions and the behaviors they cause.
An Argument Against Punishment
The associations formed through classical conditioning are one of the big reasons to think long and hard about using punishment to change your cat’s behavior. You can’t control what stimulus is connected to the punishment in your cat’s mind and because of this you can end up with some very problematic side effects.
Example: Scratching the Couch
Your Plan: Cat scratches couch; I squirt cat with water
Your Intended Lesson: Cat learns not to scratch the couch
Alternative Lessons: Cat learns…
To avoid the couch
Not to scratch when you are there
Not to scratch when you are there with the spray bottle
To avoid you when you have the spray bottle
To avoid you completely
To avoid the room where the couch is
To be defensive (aggressive) when they see the spray bottle
To be defensive (aggressive) when they see you
Obviously there are A LOT of other lessons that can be learned. Your cat could associate getting spray by water with scratching or with just the couch, you, the spray bottle, the room, or any combination of these things. And this doesn’t even take into consideration if there are other people or pets nearby that could get caught in this confusion.
That’s why any punishment must be carefully designed to only be associated with the behavior you are trying to change (ex. only the scratching on the couch) and with no other variables (ex. you, the spray bottle, the room). Finally, none of this teaches your cat where they can scratch (a natural behavior that they have to do). Even if they stop scratching the couch, there are plenty of other surfaces in your home for them to move on to.
It’s difficult to use punishment effectively.
While not every behavior or emotion can be broken down into simple associations, this is a powerful tool for understanding more about your cat. Look at your cat’s life through the lens of classical conditioning and ask “what am I really teaching my cat?”
If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.