Respondent Conditioning: Function & Behaviour Altering Effects Explained (ABA)

(N.B: we are talking about respondent & NOT operant procedures)

Responses occur due to environmental stimuli which have unlearned (or phylogenic) provenance.


  • Reflexes
  • Kineses
  • Taxis
  • Fixed Action Patterns

Reflexes are the responses between a stimulus (antecedent) and a reflex. This is a stimulus response  (or S-R) relationship. A simple example of a reflex would be, when a dog sees food, he salivates. The food is the stimulus and the response (reflex) is the salivation.


(image from khan Food is an Unconditioned Stimulus and Salivation is an Unconditioned Reflex)

Terminology for reflex responses:

The Stimulus in this case is the food and the response is the salivation. The food ELICITs salivation. This is a REFLEX response. The term Elicit is not appropriate to use during operant functional relationships.

Elicit means that it strongly, reliably evokes a response and it is exclusively used in respondent functional relations. An unconditioned reflex is the relationship between these involuntary responses. It is a response elicited by a stimulus. The reflex is not a response. It can be called an unconditioned or unlearned reflex.

  • Reflexes are usually stereotypic and do not tend to vary much around their topography (what they look like).
  • They are innate (phylogenic) in origin and involuntary
  • They are mediated by the autonomic nervous system and not the central nervous system (ANS & CNS)
  • The reflexes are relatively conserved unless there are genetic mutations which cause variations in these reflexes.
  • Reflexes involve the smooth muscle & glands. Sometimes they involve skeletal and cardiac.
  • The time that these reflexes appear in an organisms life can vary. Appearing in early infancy and then others appearing later in life. They can be retained or lost over time.


(image from study

Types of reflexes:

Patella Reflex: This is usually done as a knee jerk in humans but vets use this to test reflexes in dog too.

Eye blink: If there is a loud sound or an irritant in the eye then blinking occurs.

Lachrimal: If an irritant gets into the eye, or there is an allergic reaction then tear ducts will secrete tears which contain mucous and antibodies.

Pupillary: Pretty self explanatory but light affects the size of a pupils, and is also related to excitatory responses which effect the pathway relating to the sphincter and dilator messages. The pupils become larger when the organism is said to be “aroused” or interested in a stimulus (excuse the explanatory fiction with this terminology) The below diagram is a wonderful representation of how the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems interplay with pupil size.

(Image from raypeatforum)



Respiratory Reflex: This involves Boyles law. The pressure of air in the lungs changes as the person inhales and exhales. One of the best ways to understand this is to think about a hot water bottle. When it is empty of water and the lid is off. If you hold the sides and pull them outwards, air is sucked in through the top of the bottle as a result process of you expanding the inside space (hope that makes sense). This is the same principle of your lungs expanding as you breath in!

Reverse Peristalsis: This leads to vomitting and it is the opposite of peristalsis. This is caused by involuntary waves of muscle contraction and relaxation which act to force the food up and out through the digestive system. Peristalsis is the opposite and is the normal involuntary action of digestion which occurs in the body.

Temperature regulation: Low temps cause shivering due to surface vasoconstriction of the blood vessels and this keeps the warm blood more central in the body and less heat is lost.  During high temps the blood vessels dilate and blood reaches the surface of the skin and this allows the body to cool through evaporation through sweat on the the skin.

Loud Sound: The ear structures called the tympani and stapedius contract and this reduces the amplitude of ear drum vibrations.

Withdrawal Reflex: If a stimulus causes pain such as a hot surface or sharp object then the organism responds by removing the body part that is close to the object.

The Activation reflex or syndrome: A stimulus which is intense, painful or unexpected (such as a shock or unusual environmental event). This leads to an inreased heart rate, secretion of adrenaline the visceral blood vessels constrict and the skeletal muscle vessels dilate (vasoconstriction and vasodilation). This is where pupils also dilate (see above diagram). The liver releases sugar to the bloodstream so that energy is available for the body. When the body is in this state there are other processes which will inhibit the essential DNA regulation and protein synthesis that is responsible for synaptic plasticity and learning. One of the reasons why we do not want to create this type of reaction to help any organism learn new tasks- AKA stress does not contribute to learning (or positive learning experiences)

Other Reflexes:

Sneeze reflex, cough, rooting, sucking, salivation, swallowing and peristalsis. When an irritant gets into the nose and the mucosa it causes sneezing to expel the irritant.

(image from study


An unconditioned stimulus is referred to as a US. It ELICITS an unconditioned response and this comes about without any prior learning. This is innate, or often termed phylogenic. It is only used when we speak about respondent behaviour and not operant. As with all behaviour, the environmental change must come before the response. This is the stimulus and leads to the unconditioned reflex. The unconditioned response is called the UR.

Some examples of US are:

  • Loud sounds, food in mouth, pain.
  • Be careful not to confuse these with responses which are conditioned. For example food in the mouth might give rise to the response “yummy”. This is a conditioned response. The salivation is the UR here.
  • Most people still seem to get this wrong.

The definition is:

  • The temporary (transitory) reduction in a reflex response due to repeated presentations of the eliciting stimulus (conditioned or unconditioned US or CS).
  • These presentations occur in a SHORT period (they have close temporal contiguity) and it ONLY refers to reflexes.
  • Habituation results from repeated pairing  in a short space of time
  • The repeated pairing of the CS/US gives a gradual weakening of the activation syndrome
  • Only used in REFLEXES
  • This is the reduction in the magnitude of a response or set of responses due to prolonged exposure to a stimulus in the environment. It is based on the context of the environment. So for example, you might say that the dog adapts to his new home.
  • This definition refers to prolonged exposure
  • This term can refer to reflexes or operant behaviour.
  • The effect is NOT transitory. It is permanent
  • Can be used in REFLEXES or OPERANT behaviour
  • A temporary increase in intensity of reflex due to repeated exposure or presentation of an eliciting stimulus. This usually refers to something the organism finds aversive. The effects are transitory.
  • This is the opposite of habituation!
  • This is when a stimulus elicits a REFLEX response which has been elicited by a different previous stimulus. There are two stimuli in this condition.

Catania’s 2007 description:

“the Lowering of a threshold as when prior delivery of an AVERSIVE stimulus LOWERS the intensity at which a noise (can be another stimulus) elicits a startle response”.

  • So to give an example, your dog might hear thunder which elicits the activation syndrome. Then a short time after, someone knocks on your front door. Now usually your dog might be ok with someone knocking on the door (lets say for arguments sake he is) but because of the sound of thunder this is enough to cause a startle response!!
  • Try not to confuse potentiation and sensitization. With potentiation there is only ONE stimulus and in Sensitisation there are two!
  • The effects are usually transitory
Respondent conditioning
  • Very famous study by Ivan Pavlov. He was a physiologist looking at digestion and circulation. He discovered what was thought to be a psychic reflex. He was one of the first to introduce quantitive measurements in the field of psychology by manipulating environmental events. This is often called classical conditioning.
  • A conditioned reflex  is the simple relationship between a specific stimulus and a conditioned involuntary response.
  • These conditioned reflexes are learned via contingent pairing of something neutral (e.g. the famous bell) with an unconditioned stimuli (food).
  • The response (conditioned or CR) is similar or identical to the UR. So bell ring CS = salivation UR. These are conditional reflexes.
  • Conditioned reflexes are derived from unconditioned reflexes (from which the conditioned reflexes develop). They are learned through contingent pairing. So, for example the salivating dog (UR), the meat (US) and the bell (CS).


Neutral Stimulus:

  • This is a stimuli which has no eliciting effect prior to being contingently paired with the US or another CS. So, in Pavlovs example the bell was a neutral stimulus (NS) before being paired with the meat. A clicker is also paired with food in order for it to become a conditioned stimulus. This is used often in dog training.
  • Conditioned stimuli are said to have ontogenic (learned) provenance. We do not use this term in reference to stimuli that are functionally related to operant behaviour.  In fact the better and most appropriate term is a conditioned elicitor CE!!
  • So for example after conditioning, the sound of the bell functions as a CE (conditioned elicitor) for the dogs salivation.
  • Conditioned responses are elicited by CS due to this learning contingency which is due to ontogenic provenance it is also called a conditional response. This is sometimes abbreviated to CR.  This is the response part of a conditioned reflex. The CR must be similar or identical to the UR. Once conditioning has occurred for example the sound of the bell elicits salivation which is the CR!
  • It is important for us to be able to distinguish between US,UR,CS and CR with our examples. It is imperative that an unconditioned reflex is present otherwise respondent conditioning cannot occur.
Conditioning procedures

The timing of conditioning is important for learning. This is where a lot of mistakes are made during behaviour modification procedures and why some people still say that the training is not working. The basic short delay procedure is most optimal for learning.

Short Delay


(it is important to pair the NS by presenting the NS (e.g. bell) first and then about a second later present the US (meat). Once learned you can present the bell without the meat and the bell becomes the CS. The CS the leads to the CR.

Long Delay


The difference here is the length of time between the onset of the CS and the onset of the US. The CS must come first and there must be an overlap for it to be effective.

Trace Conditioning

This is where the offset of the CS is before the onset of the US. It is sometimes effective but the delay must be no less than 5 seconds.

Simultaneous conditioning


Not usually effective. CS and US at the same time.

Backward Conditioning

This has been shown to be ineffective. the US is presented before the CS and the only evidence of it being effective come from empirical findings in which aversive conditioned stimuli are used.

Summary of conditioning procedures and their effectiveness

(image from study


Higher order conditioning
  • When you have a NS which is then paired with a conditioned stimulus which has been conditioned rather than with the US. The order usually weakens the conditioning effects. It is often common to see second order conditioning but 3rd or higher is rare.
  • In order for a NS to become conditioned it cannot be something that has a strong or complex learning history associated with the individual. Also, stimuli that are subtle or not easy to discriminate are not good to use either.
Respondent Extinction
  • The basic process here is the unpairing of stimuli. the S-S contingency is no longer in effect. The response gets weaker because of the unpairing of the CS with the US. When this happens over time the CR is no longer elicited.
  • Compared this to habituation, which is temporary weakening of a UR due to repeated presentations of the US. Extinction is the weakening of the CR due to unpairing.
Spontaneous recovery
  • This is when there is a reappearance of a previously extinguished CR. Usually as a function of time passing. Often happens in new contexts or a different environment.
Respondent Stimulus Generalisation
  • This is where the effects of respondent conditioning spread to other conditioned stimuli. If there is similarity between the CS and the other, this is when this is most likely to occur.
  • For example the bell and a door bell.
LEARNING: Features & Variables Of Extinction & Pairing (contingency/contiguity)
  • The higher the number of pairings the greater the CR. The pairings that happen at the beginning of training are more important than those that happen later. In some cases one pairing is enough.
  • If two stimuli always occur together this gives a strong S-S contingency. If the two occur independently of each other this does not give a strong CR.
  • The time between pairing is also an important factor so the shorter interval between the CS and US the better the pairing (see above)
  • The time between intervals is also important. The general optimum is 20-30 seconds between consecutive trials.
  • Complexity and intensity are also important factors to consider as variables and some specific features such as smell, tactile stimulation etc.
  • The nature of the UR is related to how prepared the organism is in terms of his capacities relating to phylogenic origin.
  • Pairing a taste with something that elicits reverse peristalsis (vomiting)  will be more likely to have the result of the organism learning this rather than pairing other types of neutral stimuli in the environment such as sounds or other neutral stimuli with the GI (gastrointestinal) sensations.
  • In order for an organism to learn there needs to be parasympathetic activity and less sympathetic (as in stress). Although these two systems operate in synergy from moment to moment and they both respond to antecedent stimuli which relates to how the organism can regulate or behave in order to appropriate and regulate the most effective response for survival etc. The point we want to make here is really that learning (in terms of the actual neurological processes) required for plasticity actually are inhibited if the organism is stressed. So, this is why methods that use force and heavy prompting are not the best methods for teaching. The best approaches are errorless and shaping using what motivates the animal and teaching the way they learn!! (we talk more about this in our other courses).
  • Previous exposure to stimuli which are conditioned and unconditioned (CS & US) are very important variables to consider. Also, prior experiences with a neutral stimulus can effect conditioning and even inhibit it!
  • The variations in tolerance to certain drugs have been shown to depend on the the presence or absence of CS.  The immune system and immunosuppression have similar respondent characteristics.  One of the reasons why people overdose on heroin is due to something called the compensatory response. When they take heroin in an environment where there are conditioned elicitors such as people, place etc the body has a response which helps increase heart rate and other responses (compensatory response otherwise heart rate decreases) and tolerance is built in this way. When they take it in new environments the response is not elicited and they overdose.
John Broadus Watson

Is considered the father of behaviourism. He used the little Albert experiment as proof to the way that infants learn emotional reactions. He then worked with Rayner (1920) to show how to eliminate these emotional responses.  His methods included systematic desensitization, flooding and implosion. He proposed ways of counterconditioning to phobias and emotional reactions. When conducting assessments we need to figure out which components are respondent and that different treatment approaches are used than for operants. There are interactions between the two types of conditioning. We do not use flooding or implosion.

Jack Michael

Provided the functional based rationale for respondent terms. ABA focuses on operants. It is important for us to have an understanding of function. To identify and understand the functional terms we need to know the provenance of the stimulus (US or CS) and what the function is of the stimulus to elicit the response or whether it conditions another stimulus.

Respondent functions are either dimension or function altering. These can be learned or unlearned. Now, instead of a conditioned stimulus, when we are referring to respondent function altering effects of stimuli to the effect or the conditioning of new conditioners which then will have new behaviour altering effects. He developed terms to help us identify the eliciting effects of the US and CS. they are now called UE and CE respectively (conditioned and unconditioned elicitors).

US is the first function of the US to elicit the UR. This is a much more precise way of identifying and explaining the effects on the US. The UE is the food which elicits the UR. Then the bell is a CE. This is conditioned by the food (the UE) which then has a behaviour altering effect on the salivation so that the bell then elicits salivation. Then the bell might condition a light which is then a second CE which has the behaviour altering effect on the UR which is now the CR. The food in relation to the light is an unconditioned conditioner of a conditioned conditioner and then the light might condition a tone to have a behaviour altering effect on salivation so that the tone then elicits salivation CE (3) to CR. This means that the light is a conditioned conditioner of a further conditioned elicitor and the function of the bell to the tone is that its is a conditioned conditioner of a conditioned conditioner…….. This is very confusing isn’t it?!

This is probably not as far as you will need to go with your studies as the relationships are quite complex but it is important for us to have some understanding of what the function and behaviour altering conditioning effects are and how the strength of conditioning is connected in terms of the order of conditioning.

This example is called 3rd order conditioning. You will probably mostly come across 1st or second order conditioning. In dog training we use whistles and clickers. This is how the learning occurs and is paired with food as a reinforcer.

The US has 3 functions

  1. UE= dimension altering (unconditioned elicitor)
  2. UC/CE function altering (unconditioned conditioner OF another conditioned elicitor)
  3. UC/CC function altering (then the unconditioned conditioner of the conditioned conditioner

The 3rd effect is usually only seen in 2nd order conditioning when the CS1 conditions another conditioner which is CS2. When a CS1 conditions a CS3 via a CS2 the relationship between the CS1 and the CS3 is a conditioned conditioner of a conditioned conditioner (this is so funny, but it is the term used and no better ones have been given to us yet). If this sounds too confusing please do not worry too much about it. Spend some time working through examples until you can see how this works.

4 terms as explained by Jack Michael.
  • UC/CE unconditioned conditioner of a conditioned elicitor
  • CC/CE conditioned conditioner of a conditioned elicitor
  • UC/CC Unconditioned conditioner of a conditioned conditioner
  • CC/CC conditioned conditioner of a conditioned conditioner

The following graph was adapted from Tom Freeman’s representation using different conditioning elicitors which are more relevant for animal training. The tone could be the sound of the lead being picked up or opening the fridge or picking up an item etc..

The reason the lines become fainter is because the strength of conditioning is weaker as you increase the order.


  • It is important to note that all dimension altering effects are S-R (stimulus response)
  • The function altering effects are S-S effects because one stimulus changes how another stimulus functions
  • Dimension altering effects (behaviour altering is the better term for this) occur right now and the function altering ones effects occur in the future.

This is one of the course units in the ABA course for dog trainers and behaviourists.

Authors bio


Cooper Heron


Florida Institute