Goodie or Doodie? When a Classical Pairing Gets Stomped On

I rewrote this post significantly and republished it in August 2022. Here’s a link. I’m leaving this version up because of the comments.


I use to host this blog. It has a smartphone app. The app is most useful to me for checking statistics and getting notifications.

The app has a pleasant little sound effect. You can assign it to sound as a notification when different things happen on the blog. I didn’t understand the nuances when I first got it. I just went with the default, and soon learned that it played the sound when I got comments, likes, or follows.

Here’s the sound effect, as well as what a notification can look like. (For those who speak music, the sound effect is an arpeggiated major triad, in the 6/3 position, pitched high, with a timbre resembling a celeste.)

Getting follows, likes, and comments is fun for most any blogger. But when you are first beginning and have no idea whether anyone will want to read what you write, it is truly thrilling when you find out that someone likes it well enough to sign up for notifications. Or when they simply press the Like button. Or the absolute best, when they leave a nice comment.

I didn’t realize until I started blogging how very important comments are, but it’s obvious when you think about it. When you write, you put your stuff out there and hope that it’s read, but you don’t really know whether you have reached someone until you get some feedback. And to me personally, it is a great feeling to find out that something I wrote has helped somebody and their dog.

I feel incredibly lucky to be a writer in this day and age, when immediate feedback is possible. I think about the writers of yesteryear, especially the novelists, for whom positive responses often came only after they were dead, if then. But I can write a post and get responses the same day.

I think a good number of the major web writing and social platforms know their behavior science. One of the requirements for reinforcement to occur is for the consequence to follow the behavior closely in time or at least be clearly connected to the behavior. WordPress does several little potential reinforcers whenever you post. They congratulate you right after you hit the “Post” button and tell you how many posts you have cumulatively published, and often include an inspirational quote. They enable quick feedback via the mobile apps. These things can encourage you, consciously or unconsciously, to write more. (Technically, to hit the “post” button more. But the whole behavior chain is probably reinforced.)

The Chime

So here’s what happened with the chime thing when I first started blogging and got the WordPress app.

  • **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone liked my post
  • **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone followed the blog
  • **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone made a nice comment
  • **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone liked my post

Et cetera. Do you see where I am going with this? We’ve not only got operant conditioning going, as I described above. We’ve got classical!

Classical conditioning (also Pavlovian conditioning or respondent conditioning) is a form of learning in which the conditioned stimulus or CS, comes to signal the occurrence of a second stimulus, the unconditioned stimulus or US.–Wikipedia

The conditioned stimulus was the little chime. Although it was designed to be pleasant to the human ear, for Westerners anyway,  it was meaningless the first time I heard it (a neutral stimulus). But what happened after that was that it got paired umpteen times with something really nice. So what happened? I started getting a surge of happiness when I heard the chime! The chime became an antecedent that triggered an emotional response.

This is one of the clearest examples to me personally that the stuff that goes on with our brains and emotions is chemical. I could feel happiness wash through me when the chime went off. And you can bet that whenever feasible, I grabbed my phone to see what had happened. The pleasure that had at first come from a like or a follow or a nice comment had moved forward in time and started surging in when I heard the chime, before I ever saw what had arrived.

When I first got the WordPress app, they used one of the out-of-the-box smartphone sound effects that is also used by other apps. They introduced the  “chime” in an update. It’s probably beneficial for their sound effect to stand out. For me as the end user, it facilitated the classical conditioning. It meant that the pairing of “the chime” with “happy news from the blog” was completely consistent. The chime wasn’t used for any other function on the phone. It was so consistent and distinct that I could actually feel my body chemistry change when I heard it.

Losing Eden

The serpent

So it was bound to happen, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

What happened when I got my first nasty comment on the blog?

I heard the chime. I got the thrill of happy anticipation. I looked at my phone to see what had happened. I got an eyeful of vitriol! My mind and body were primed for a goodie, and I got doodie.

Instead of the happy brain cocktail, or actually right after it, I got a fight or flight response. I felt an unpleasant flush. My skin got prickly. Even a small wave of nausea washed over me. I was upset and hurt.

I sound like a real baby, and maybe I am. But the above is the best description I can give of my feelings. And from my amateur observations, it is similar to what my dogs go through at times when disappointed and hurt as well.

You’d think I would have realized that sooner or later someone would be bothered so much by what I wrote that they would write something nasty back, but I had been floating along in my honeymoon period and it was just not in my mind. Too bad WordPress couldn’t assign a different sound to nasty comments, eh?

The important thing was that that only had to happen once to completely change my reaction to the sound.

It had gone sour. The next time I heard the chime I felt like the rug had been jerked out from under my feet. I had kind of a dual reaction. First I momentarily had the old reaction, then the new unpleasant one washed in. The prediction of good stuff no longer held, and had already destroyed the purity of the chime.

And worst of all, there was still a prediction! Something was waiting for me! But was it a nice thing or an icky thing? What was behind the curtain? It was now a potential threat!

My negative commenter didn’t leave right away, so the negative reaction started being my principal response and the nice happy reaction faded away. Instead of happily reaching for my phone with a slight sense of euphoria,  I looked at it with curiosity and a small amount of dread.

What Next?

Fast forward a few months. I hadn’t had any really aggressive commenters for a while, so I was generally looking forward to checking out what was going on when I heard the chime. I would never regain the pure joy reaction, but the chime had definitely moved back into the positive side again.

In June 2013 I got an email from the WordPress staff that one of my posts was going to be featured on Freshly Pressed, the daily WordPress showcase. (The link to Freshly Pressed works only if you have a WordPress account.) This was thrilling news and I looked forward to the day it would be featured. I knew exactly when it was published because that chime on my phone was almost constant for about an hour. Pring, pring, pring, pring! How thrilling! All sorts of people, outside the dog training community and including other writers, were liking my post and following my blog!

The chime went off at a higher rate for more than a week, and there weren’t any comments that were exceptionally hard to deal with, so all was good.

But about a month later, I noticed something. I connected this with having had a post featured on Freshly Pressed, but it may have been just that my blog had been around long enough. The people who were following and liking my blog didn’t look like dog people, or even serious writers, from the look of their usernames. This took a while to sink in. But when most of the usernames were things like reebok4ever, vi_gracheap, and gucciandcoach, I started to get it that not everyone who followed the blog or liked a post was passionate about dog training. The spammers would “Like” a post because their icon and a link to their website could appear in a list at the bottom of the page.

Soon most chimes were predicting these spammer likes and follows. They greatly outnumbered serious followers, by the look of them. So the chime became meaningless. It was a prediction of…nothing in particular. And from there it went to annoying. Why announce it when another spammer is trying to tag onto my blog?

I turned off the chime.


You didn’t think this was just about me, did you?

As a human, I have a big cerebral cortex and some cognitive skills that are unknown to dogs. I can reason and predict and justify. But I experienced the change of the chime physically, and it was very unpleasant. I know that most mammals, including dogs, have similar neurological chemicals and reactions to humans. And I can only imagine what it would have been like if I went from trusting that something great was about to happen to finding out that I might get whacked, without the cognitive skills to understand all of what was happening. It was bad enough as it was.

This is the classical conditioning version of a poisoned cue. I’ve written about the effort I made to replace one that was negatively affecting my dog. Now, when I establish a classical pairing, or assign a cue to a behavior, I make sure in both cases that they predict exclusively good things. Not just for effective training, but to be fair and kindly to my dogs.

Zani being creative in her bid for a treat
Zani being creative in a bid for attention

For example, I reinforce my dogs generously for getting on their mats. I don’t have to tell them to do so for them to get a treat. In many cases, the mat itself is the cue. I reinforce “offered” mat behavior. So little Zani, who ceaselessly seeks goodies from me, has decided when we first get up in the morning, to run ahead of me and lie down on every possible mat. Trouble is, she gets underfoot, and some of the mats themselves are in my way, like the one right next to the bed. I have caught myself half a dozen times wanting to fuss at her for plopping down in front of me on a mat. Here I am stumbling to the back door. I think, damn, she should know better!

But she is doing exactly what I have reinforced her for doing, thousands of times. Mats predict nice things happening. I have not put mat behavior on stimulus control (more on that in the future). And I’m the one who put the mats in the walkway. (I know I have mashed up operant and respondent learning in this example. But it was mashed up in the chime example, too. I do think I have reinforced my dogs for being on mats so much that mats are classically conditioned as good, happy things.)

So do I really want to induce a similar goodie->doodie experience in my dear little dog? Do I want to switch without warning from “mats predict great things” to “getting on a mat can make Mom mad and fuss at you”?

No. Never. I don’t want to dilute the power of her cues. I want that happy brain cocktail for her as part of our training interactions always.

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

Spam photo from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Angry Red Hammer Guy under this license. I cropped the photo, which originally showed that the spam was misplaced in the Kosher section of a grocery store.

Serpent photo from Wikimedia Commons is in the public domain.

23 thoughts on “Goodie or Doodie? When a Classical Pairing Gets Stomped On

  1. As usual, well written and insightful. I love your clear thinking and this article on conditioned emotional responses. As a person who is sensitive to criticism, yes i am in therapy for perfectionism, I share your emotional responses. But the truth is that like our dogs we can learn resilience and focus on the mass of good feedback instead of the occasional scolding. Hope the aversives never stop you from what you are doing we professional trainers need your voice and more importantly the dogs need it!!!

    1. Oh, you are very kind, Angie! The aversives have at times slowed me down but I will prevail. It’s important to me. Thank you for commenting. Made my day.

  2. good one eileen. i wonder about ‘chime overload’ (not from spammers, but from sincere followers).
    i’m pretty sure i must have learned something about ‘saturation’ (or satiation? habituation??) in my basic psych classes but i can’t remember anything about it.
    i wonder if your happy emotional response would have waned eventually even with all positive feedback, if the chimes would have continued at an exceptionally higher and higher rate for weeks or months on end? thoughts?

    1. I think this is when reinforcement would become differential. If it’s chime = kibble, chime = kibble, chime = kibble, over and over (for Eileen, maybe it would be chime = thanks!, chime = thanks! over and over again), it becomes too predictable and loses its stimulating effect. Think of celebrities and the constant praise they get, even if they suck. Hmmm, probably some cocaine would spruce that compliment up a little. We get creative and find a way to make the cue have the meaning it once had.
      Using a reinforcement schedule keeps it exciting: chime = kibble, chime = FIVE PIECES OF STEAK?! OH MY STARS! chime = 2 pieces of kibble (ooh, ooh! where’d that steak go?). As a dog trainer, I can see the frenzy of offered behaviors going on when unexpected jackpots happen. Like dogs, if we think something REALLY special will happen when we (in this case) hear the cue, we will perform the behavior more for the eventuality of the jackpot (and the corresponding serotonin/oxytocin rush!). Think: slot machines. The psychology behind the one-armed bandit is why casinos are packed, even when everyone knows the “house always wins”.
      Changing the value and quantity of the reward (consequence) keeps the cue emotionally exciting. It is also necessary for proofing a behavior once it’s learned, and getting it under stimulus control (which I’m personally horribly bad at). Eileen had her “mat addict”, and I have “the bobble-head dog” (from botched eye-contact-while-walking behavior chain). Sigh.
      Well, hope that helps!

        1. is the bobble head that slight upward toss of the head?
          i get that frequently from one of my dogs.
          so that is from lack of stimulus control?

          1. Yes, the bobble head (Dianne’s term–I love it) is Summer’s chin lift. Dianne and I both created that accidentally with a clicker when going for eye contact.

            The stimulus control thing was separate and unrelated to the bobble head. Since I don’t work very hard on stimulus control, my dogs offer behaviors all the time. Dianne said something similar. I rarely graduate to the “only reinforce when cued” level. So I’m afraid my dogs are the stereotypical clicker dogs, trying stuff all the time.

            1. Sorry for the confusion there! I should have been a little clearer on stimulus control vs. accidentally training unwanted behavior or behavior chains. Stimulus control means your dog ONLY performs a behavior when the cue for it is given, never at any other time. If you want to see remarkable stimulus control, check out the ACD named Skidboot. There is no mention of training techniques in the segment, he’s portrayed as a “smartest dog in the world” kind of thing, but check out his owner’s body language, and the consistent signals he’s sending. I don’t think he knows what a natural he is, which makes it even more fun. Skidboot clearly enjoys what he’s doing, too.
              Personally, I think I secretly enjoy it when my dog offers all sorts of behaviors and is having fun doing it, which makes me procrastinate indefinitely when it comes time for some stimulus control work. 🙂

  3. I enjoy all your posts Eileen. Just ashamed that it took a post like this to write, at last.
    What a shame a few people had to pee on your fireworks 🙂

    I feel exactly the same about constantly reinforcing some behaviours. Recalls are always reinforced, whether it’s a treat, a ball or tuggy. Occasionally it’s a jackpot of chicken. I swear I can see joy on their faces as they charge towards me so we both get a buzz out of it.
    It’s not quite the same as your mat situation I know and I have no reason to want to stop it.
    Have you thought of moving your mats? LOL.

    1. Thanks for writing, Nicola! I’m learning to deal with the pee!

      I love reinforcing recalls, too! It’s funny, if I don’t have something really great, be it food or the best tug or whatever, I don’t use their “real” recall words. But since I still reinforce them for coming to a casual, “OK let’s to now” remark with whatever I have, they come really eagerly for that, too.

      Oh man, one of the problems is that I move the mats too much! They might be anywhere….

      1. I’ve just signed up with WordPress, not that I’ll be blogging. Far to many Nicolas so I will be nickynockynoo. (I think, it’s still showing Nicola here?)
        I shall look forward to you writing about not having mats under stimulus control.

        1. Yes, I’m still seeing Nicola. Oh well, give it a couple days.

          I really should write about stimulus control, if I want to continue in the tradition of writing about things I’m really bad at!

  4. Eileen, this is maybe the clearest explanation I have ever read for why/how clicker training works and why NRMs (no reward markers) and punishment, mixed in with positive reinforcement (clicker training), seriously undercut your effectiveness and the learner’s trust in you and the process. All without ever using the word, “clicker,” I think! Nicely done. I am wondering if you have tried switching your chime to a different sound after the uncomfortable comment experiences that you got all in a row/clump? Would that mitigate the effects of the chime being a poisoned cue?

  5. Eileen, you are a genius! (How’s that for some reinforcement?) Not only have you explained the emotional, classical aspect of learning, and what can go wrong when moving into operant territory, but you might have just pinpointed THE psychological reason why people tend to behave more irrationally and emotionally in online comments than if they were having face-to-face conversations. All in a day’s work. *slaps dust off of hands*

    1. Dianne! Please come back every day! Thank you so much. Could you expand on the second point? I love it that I solved a problem and didn’t know it, but I’d like to know, too. Are you saying the reason people behave more irrationally is from the confusing mixture of reinforcers and aversives?

      1. I really have no way to prove it, but a lightbulb went on as I read your description of your intense emotional response to the first negative comment – after being thoroughly conditioned to the chime on your phone. My thought was, with the massive amounts of stimuli people experience from the internet, and the fact that all these apps, with their consistent cues, are in constant use in poeple’s phones, that means a perpetual onslaught of very controlled (electronics) conditioning is taking place almost around the clock, with corresponding emotional consequences. When I thought about people having these meltdowns in comment threads, it suddenly seemed like you had hit the reason – emotional overload from classical conditioning.

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