I Got Trained Like Pavlov’s Dogs—Then Things Fell Apart

A black and rust colored dog lies on a pink mat. Dog is lying on her side and side-eying the camera

Rinnnggg! I learned to expect something nice when I heard that sound. Then things went south.

The Sound

When I first started out as a blogger in 2012, I used a hosting site called WordPress.com. Their smartphone app has a pleasant little notification sound effect. I soon learned that the app played the sound when I got comments, likes, or follows.

Here’s the sound effect.

The sound is an arpeggiated C major triad, in the 6/3 position, pitched high (the lowest note is E6 at 1,318 Hz), with a timbre resembling a celeste. For most people accustomed to Western music, it would be a fairly pleasant sound, a lot more pleasant than, say, a buzzer.

Positive Feedback for Blogging

Getting positive feedback is fun for any blogger. But when you are just beginning and have no idea whether anyone will want to read what you write, it’s thrilling to find out that someone likes it well enough to follow. Or when they simply press the Like button. Or the absolute best, when they leave a positive comment or a question.

I didn’t realize until I started blogging how important comments are. When you write, you put your stuff out there and hope people read it. Encouraging comments act as positive reinforcement. You want to publish more, and to do that you have to write more! It was a great feeling whenever I found out that something I wrote helped somebody and their dog.

I feel lucky (most of the time) to be a writer today when immediate feedback is possible. I think about the writers of yesteryear, for whom positive responses often came only after they were dead, if then. But I can write a post and get responses on the same day.

The Classical Association and How It Was Built

You can see where this is going, right? Here’s what happened 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 positive comment
  • **Chime**: I look at my phone and see that someone liked my post
A hand holds a smartphone and a bunch of like and other symbols float in the air above it

Et cetera. We’ve got both operant and classical conditioning going on. That’s always true, but it’s especially easy to see in a situation like this. I look at my phone when I hear the chime and get reinforced for doing so. But I also get a great feeling about that chime.

The chime was meaningless the first time I heard it (a neutral stimulus) since I didn’t know what it predicted. After a few repetitions, it predicted social approval. After a couple dozen repetitions, I started getting a surge of happiness when I heard the chime!

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

The WordPress.com notification sound is custom, not shared by other phone apps to my knowledge. It’s 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 “cheerful news about my blog” was completely consistent, so consistent and distinct that I could feel my body chemistry change when I heard it.

Expulsion from Eden: The Association Changed

Portion of Michelangelo painting Expulsion from Eden: A serpent with a woman's head is wrapped around a tree.
The serpent from Michelangelo’s Expulsion from Eden

So it was bound to happen, but I didn’t see it coming.

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

I heard the chime and got the thrill of joyful 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 treat, and I got hostility.

The happy brain cocktail had started, but cut off as I felt an unpleasant flush. My skin got prickly. A 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 may be similar to what my dogs go through when disappointed and hurt as well.

I had been floating along in a honeymoon period, and it was not in my mind that someone would respond unpleasantly. Too bad WordPress couldn’t assign a different sound to nasty comments, eh?

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

The next time I heard the chime, I had an unpleasant dual reaction. I momentarily had the old response, then the new unpleasant one washed in. The prediction of good stuff no longer held, and the purity of the chime was history.

And worst of all, there was still a prediction! Something was waiting for me! But was it a nice thing or an icky thing?

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

The Association Changes Yet Again

Fast forward a few months. I had had no aggressive commenters for a while, so when I heard the chime, I usually looked forward to checking out what was going on. I would never regain the pure joy reaction, but the chime had moved back into the positive side again.

In June 2013, I got an email from the WordPress.com staff that one of my posts was going to be featured on Freshly Pressed, the daily WordPress showcase. It was thrilling to have a post chosen out of the millions published each day. They didn’t tell me the date of the feature in advance, but I knew exactly when it happened because the chime on my phone blew up. It went off constantly for more than an hour. Wow! My post had been showcased for a potential audience of millions. All sorts of people outside the dog training community, including other writers, read my post and many followed my blog!

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

Cans of Spam on a grocery shelf

But about a month later, I noticed something. The flurry hadn’t quite died down, but my new followers didn’t look like real people from 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. They were interacting on the blog for a different reason. These bots and 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, and I wasn’t getting any comments. So the chime became meaningless. Why would I want to know when another non-entity followed the blog?

I turned off the chime.


This post isn’t just about me.

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 the switch from yay to yuck was very unpleasant. Dogs have similar neurological chemicals and reactions to those of humans. And I can only imagine what it would be like to go from trusting that something great was about to happen to finding out that I might get whacked, without the cognitive skills to understand what was happening.

This is the classical conditioning version of the operant poisoned cue. I’ve written about the effort I made to replace such a cue 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 only good things. Not only for effective training, but to be fair and kind to my dogs.

Here’s an example of a situation that could have gone south, but I managed to not let that happen.

I reinforce my dogs generously for getting on their mats. Most times, the mat itself is the cue. I reinforce “offered” mat behavior. So little Zani, who ceaselessly sought goodies from me, decided when we first got up in the morning and headed to the back door to run ahead of me and lie down on every mat. She was such a clever little cuss. Trouble was, she got underfoot, and some mats were in my way. I caught myself many times wanting to fuss at her for plopping down in front of me on a mat. There I was, stumbling sleepily along. I thought, damn, she should know better!

A black and rust dog is lying on a navy blue mat holding a sports shoe and looking directly at the camera
Zani on a mat with a shoe: a double bid for reinforcement

But she was doing exactly what I had daily reinforced her for doing. Mats predicted nice things happening. I hadn’t put mat behavior on stimulus control. And I was the one who put the mats in the walkway.

I know I mashed up operant and respondent learning in that example. But it was mashed up in the chime example, too. I have reinforced my dogs for being on mats so much that mats are classically conditioned as good, happy places.

So did I really want to create a similar nasty experience for my dear little dog? Did I want to switch without warning from “mats predict great things” to “getting on a mat can make Eileen pissy”?

No. Never. I didn’t want to dilute the power of her cues. I wanted that happy brain cocktail for her as part of our interactions always. And I still want it for all my dogs.

Copyright 2013, 2022 Eileen Anderson

This post was first published in 2013 under the title “Goodie or Doodie: When a Classical Pairing Gets Stomped On.” I’ve rewritten it substantially.

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.

The smartphone illustration is from CanStock Photo.

The two photos of Zani are copyright Eileen Anderson.

28 thoughts on “I Got Trained Like Pavlov’s Dogs—Then Things Fell Apart

  1. I absolutely loved this post. You wrote it so beautifully and clearly. A very clear reminder to me that all the positive reinforcement I am doing with my dog needs to be constant, and that any disappointment or frustration on my part needs to be shelved away and dealt with away from my dog. I had a difficult walk with Jack, the first in many months, and I did not work with him the way I usually do. The shock of the walk overrode what I know I should do (as it did for my dog too!). Thank you again. Your posts are always so helpful.

    1. Thank you so much, Aileen! It sure can be a challenge living up to our intentions and values, can’t it? Good for you for being introspective and doing right by Jack.

  2. Well, after reading that post, what else can I do but comment, even if it no longer plays you a merry little jingle? I rarely comment, but I always look forward to seeing a notification about a new post from you in my inbox.

    My reaction is a little tingle of excitement that I have something interesting, informative, well-researched and well-written to read later. I can confirm that this reaction has not changed in the years I’ve been following your blog. I still get that little tingle of pleasure to come when I have time to read your post. I have never had cause to replace the tingle of excitement with a feeling of dread about what you may be writing about, or any of the other stages you describe. I love learning from you, and I love seeing the cute photos of your dogs too (Zani above being a case in point). Thanks for years of pleasure!

    1. My goodness, what wonderful things to say to me! That was thrilling through and through! My sincere thanks. 😊


  3. Hi, Eileen! Great post! I don’t have dogs but my daughters do, and, anyway, this post could apply to kids and grandkids as well! I loved the chime description. I thought, immediately, “Once a continuo player, always a continuo player.” 🙂

    1. Haha, yes, I guess so! I’m glad you liked the post! I have one other music-oriented post you might like. It’s about the old Philharmonia days when we knew each other, and a subsequent gig I had with Alan Curtis. Glad to be connected again!

  4. Yes, I read that one with Phebe Craig! We were playing a concert together and wondering about people from back in the day, so we found you! You seem to be well and thriving. Very cool blog!

    1. Oh, cool! Say hi to Phebe for me. Yes, I’m doing well. I hope you are, too! You must be—I knew you were still playing (same—a while back I looked up people from back in the day!).


  5. Great examples! The descriptions of your responses to the chime are so relatable that when I got to your mention of a poison cue and whether even a tiny lapse in meeting expectations (much less dashing them!) for cues would affect the animal’s response…it was very clear. Reward that dog! Then move the mat, lol.
    Zani is absolutely adorable in that pic, which is a wonderful image for this topic. Thanks.

  6. Such well-thought out insights – got me thinking about where I might apply these to my dog’s point of view. Much appreciation.

  7. I love this post, it makes me understand how conditioning works on a different level. Apart from that: what titch990 wrote. And I’m going to comment here more offten now. 🙂 The ratio is important.

  8. I love this blog post. It covers so many different concepts. And applies to us and our animals beautifully. I enjoy reading your posts and books so much. I have been a follower since I was dealing with my beloved Molly’s aging. Today was the anniversary of her 20th birthday. I thank you so much for all of your help over the years.

  9. When I first read this a couple of days ago, it seemed so crystal clear. As I continued to think about it, I realized that there’s one type of cue that cannot always be purely positive, and now I’m wondering how to go about training it without making a dog going through the shock of something wonderful suddenly having a “dark side”.

    I’m not sure how this type of cue is usually referred to in English (in German it’s the “ich-bin-bereit-Signal”). They are used in cooperative care/husbandry training and consist of the animal holding a trained position. While that behavior is being shown, medical care and/or grooming are carried out, which sometimes includes unpleasant things like anal thermometers, shots, etc. At the same time, high value reinforcers are being doled out at a high rate. As soon as the animal breaks position, both the treatment/grooming and the reinforcers stop. Overall, it’s been shown to reduce stress and improve medical outcomes (at least in otherwise squirmy patients).

    However, it still consists of first training a behavior with lots of positive reinforcement, and then suddenly adding an aversive to it. Granted, you’re supposed to start at the extremely mild end and ever so slowly work your way up to the hard stuff. But does that make it feel better emotionally? If the negative comments had started out very mild and had always been paired with really gushy ones, would you have had the same emotional reaction?

    1. Martin, that’s a great question and I don’t know the answer. I know that a lot of people who need to do painful husbandry salt in many repetitions without the shot or other aversive procedure. On the other hand, is it a kindness to let the dog know when the uncomfortable stimulus is going to happen?

      My experience with Zani and her eye drops would support the first thing I mentioned. As long as a significant percentage of her eyedrops didn’t sting, she seemed fine, even happy with the procedure. (She got wonderful food.) But when it came to pass that half or more of her eyedrops stung, she became avoidant.

      I don’t even have a good answer for your question to me about the comments. The situation is hard to imagine. but I guess if I had had slightly negative comments from early on, I wouldn’t have developed such a happy association with the sound to begin with, and I also wouldn’t have fallen so far.

      Great things to consider. I’m going to ask some folks about this one.

  10. What a thought-provoking post, Eileen. It’s interesting to hear what life is like behind the scenes at a blog. I too am sorry that spammers are out there wasting everyone’s time. I’d comment more, but often my comments vanish (not only on your blog), and Pavlov strikes again. I’ll make more of an effort, now that I know how much you value them. I am happy to reinforce your writing; every post makes me stop and think.

    1. Chris, you are so kind. I think I may be the culprit with some comments; just yesterday I found a comment of yours from 2021 that I had never released! (I released it and replied, but now I don’t remember the post.) But I’m doing better now, and I do love to get your comments!

  11. Thank you so much Eileen for your wonderful posts. Every post I read from you hits the reset button for me. Thanks for reminding me to stop and think.

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