Conditioning is a simple learning technique we use to train our pets by giving them positive feedback or a food reward if we want them to repeat a behaviour. Bears, too, need to be trained, usually through a crucial experience that initiates the chain of behavioral change. First, bears need an opportunity to learn where to get nutrient rich food from people. Then, its just a matter of time before the bear repeats the behaviour that produces the (food) reward.
For example, if a bear is attracted to the smell of garbage in a can it may push the can over, exposing the contents for consumption. The animal’s action of pushing over the can was instrumental in obtaining a reward (food). Bears have the ability to learn from a single experience and this process may be all that is necessary for the animal to become conditioned to push over garbage cans to obtain food. As a result of learning, whenever the bear encounters garbage cans in the future, with or without any food odours, it will likely investigate them. In addition, the association between the smell and the reward has been made. In this situation the bear would likely be attracted to similar smells (eg. garbage on a porch). Regardless of the type of attractants, once bears have been successful in obtaining human foods, without any negative experience, they begin to develop new behaviour patterns and may continue to seek food at human use sites.
Cubs learn the fundamental skills of survival from their mother. If the mother spends most of her time foraging for food at a landfill or from another human garbage source, this is the behaviour the cubs will learn. Even adult bears possess the ability to learn through observation of other bears. Bears are highly intelligent creatures and effective learners. Throughout their life bears remain curious and continue to learn through trial and error.