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Why We Say No to Hand Creeping.

Before we can fully dive into this topic, we must start with an explanation of classical conditioning and basic conditioning arrangements.


Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning, is the most fundamental manner in which animals learn about their environment, and is dominant when the brain is very neuroplastic (young animals) and becomes less dominant as the animal ages and the brain becomes less neuroplastic.


Classical conditioning is how the animal learns how to react in their environment. It is all about reflexes. The brain uses a lot of energy and is always trying to preserve energy. Therefore the brain tries to put as much information on autopilot and anticipate reactions as much possible to avoid having to cognitively think about stimuli in the environment constantly.

Classical conditioning is the reason why when someone calls your name in Mexico City you turn your head, even though you may not know anyone in Mexico City.

Your brain does not stop to think logically, it is mostly likely that the person shouting was actually calling someone else with the same name because you do not know anyone here and there is no reason to turn, your brain simply has put your name on autopilot and causes the body to react as a reflex.

Classical conditioning is also why dogs that have been poorly exposed to motorbikes might have a reflexive fear response at the sound of a motorbike without even seeing one approach.

Below is a flow chart on how classical conditioning works in the brain:

An unconditioned reflex (UR) is something that is preprogrammed into the animal, for example adrenaline release, salivation, cortisol release, digestive enzyme release etc. These UR happen as a consequence of an unconditioned stimulus (US). US are stimuli that are preprogrammed into the animal to understand, for example food, water, sex, prey/predator, freedom/trapped.

A neutral stimulus (NS) is something that is not preprogrammed into the animal for survival but exists outside of that bubble, for example the ringing of a doorbell, a motor bike, an umbrella.

If a NS consistently and systematically appears prior to a US then the brain of the animal will put that pathway into an autopilot route and link the two stimuli as causal. Whatever UR the animal would originally have had to the US it will now have at the presentation of the NS. The NS is now a conditioned stimulus (CS) and the response is a conditioned response.

An example is Pavlov’s dogs. The simplified version is his dogs salivated (UR) at the presentation of food (US). He then rang a bell (NS) prior to presenting the food. Eventually the dogs started to anticipate the food at the sound of the bell, and started to salivate. The bell was now a CS and the CR was salivation.

In dog training, we name the dog’s US as our rewards and punishers (food, play, and freedom). Where here, a punisher is simply the lack of a reward. Our CS are called our marker words and indicate feedback. It can be helpful to think of marker words as a payslip, and the rewards/punishers as money in the bank. When you receive your payslip, you do not yet have the money; however, you feel as if you do. You have an emotion (good or bad depending on the number) and may even make financial decisions because you are convinced the money will arrive in your bank within a couple of business days. This is how a marker works for a dog; the dog feels as if they won the reward when you mark, even though you have not yet given it to them.

Basic Conditioning Arrangements

It may seem obvious that for there to be an anticipatory correlation between the marker word (CS) and the reward (US), the marker word must come first. More formally written classical learning dictates that the CS must closely proceed the US for conditioning (CR) to occur. However, to make this even more obvious we must talk about the different types of classical conditioning arrangements base temporal relation of the marker (CS) and the reward (US) and their effect on conditioning (CR).

Simultaneous arrangement is ineffective as the timeline of causation is questionable, there is no anticipation of prediction when simultaneous conditioning is used, and a CR is unlikely to occur. Simultaneous arrangement is analytical - the occurrence of the CS is temporarily coextensive with the US.


Short delayed or short trace arrangement are the most effective in creating a strong CR. If the CS occurs shortly before the US then it gradually becomes predictive.


Long delay arrangements where the presentation of the CS and US are separated by too much time create weak bonds and/or conditioning may not take place.


Backwards arrangement may lead to no conditioning since the CS does not predict the US or maybe create an undesirable conditioning, for example that the US predicts the CS. An example of this is poisoning the food in training. Instead of the dog seeing the scary motorbike and then receiving a treat, the dog receives the treat and then sees the scary motorbike - therefore the treat starts to predict the scary motorbike and the dog may have an aversion to taking food from the human.

Hand Creeping

Dogs read human body language very well and are very observant. If you put your hand into your treat pouch or pocket and pull out a treat for the dog, they will see the action of putting your hand into the pouch as a CS and will predict the US. Essentially putting your hand into the treat pouch is a marker for the dog.


If your hand creeps into the pouch in anticipation of the dog doing a certain desired behaviour, then you may be marking the wrong point in time accidentally and thereby reinforcing a different undesirable behaviour. For example, you ask your dog to go into a down, as they begin to go down you creep your hand into the pouch in anticipation, however the dog has only gone into a half down with elbows lifted, that moment in time is marked for the dog and the dog now believes that an press up is what was the desired behaviour. This effect can be more problematic when dealing with behavioural issues such as reactivity and aggression.

If your hand creeps into the pouch in anticipation of the appearance of an aversive (eg a motorbike) then you may be creating a backward conditioning arrangement and inadvertently poisoning your food.

This is the reason that you will hear your dog trainer continually say not to hand creep. Timing is important and being fast is great, but we want to avoid simultaneous and backward conditioning arrangements. 


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