6. Primary and secondary stimuli
There are two kinds of stimuli: the primary (unconditioned / untrained) stimuli and the secondary (learned) stimuli.
The former type is the one that we recognise as such immediately, by nature: food, pain, comfort, warmth, etc; are a few of them. All these items make us feel good or bad and that we don’t have to learn as a good or bad thing. As a rule they apply on animals as on humans. Nobody had to learn Pavlov’s dogs to drool over food; nobody needs to teach us that is nice to be comforted.
The secondary (learned) stimuli get a respond after we have learned about them. Animals that are in a field with boundaries of electrical wire will startle when they touch the wire even if they do so when the current is switched off. Many dogs bark when the doorbell rings because they associate the doorbell with visitors. Hearing a fire alarm has the same effect on people as seeing the flames.
Those secondary stimuli need to be taught; the trainee has to learn what is good or bad about them. A child that has never been visiting a circus before and never heard about it will only see it as something good or bad after the first visit. This process of apprehending is called conditioning.
The significance of conditioning
In training animals conditioning is a necessity. Without conditioning you would not be able to be successful in animal training. In training of a sub it is a very useful and strong tool in order to optimize results. Where you could – in training a sub – promise a reward and actually give it to her later, in animal training you always need to give rewards immediately.
However when the reward is relatively small and the time she has to wait for it is relatively long, she will be far less motivated to perform well. As the trainer cannot be present at all times to present the reward it is necessary to teach a secondary stimulus associated with the actual reward.
Suppose your sub is performing an assignment in the house for which you want to reward her with a snack; however while she is performing her duty you are away at work. To work around this problem trainers search for something they can deliver easily even when not present.
Through conditioning the sub has to learn about this replacing (secondary) stimulus. This is often referred to as: building a bridge. The bridge being the connection between the (replacing) secondary stimulus and the actual reward that follows later.
With animals this is often done through a whistle or a clicker. With subs often a praising remark is used, such as: “good girl” or “obedient sub”.
The use of the clicker
In animal training the clicker is a common instrument to be used just before presenting a sweet. After time the animal will recognise the clicker as something good and the clicker itself is the treat. The association is formed. It is the creation of conditioned reinforcement. (CR) The click is just the signal that a treat will be presented. A lot of trainers say that the clicker itself is the actual treat.
In training a sub a clicker would not work of course. What could be done in training is touching your sub in a comforting way (hugging, stroking her hair) while some praising rewards are spoken like: ‘beautiful girl’ or ‘good girl’. After time the sub will think of this comforting touch when only the words are spoken.