Who Was Pavlov’s Dog?

old golden retriever

Pavlov’s dog in the truest sense is something of a mistaken term. The scientist, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was doctor, psychologist and physiologist who in one experiment decided to decide why it was that dogs salivated prior to eating. Through a use of different signs, signals, and noises the dogs’ salivary response could be induced prior to even seeing food. Pavlov realized that he could actually induce a salivary response by exposing the dogs to familiar sounds, not a bell as is often believed.

Over time, when the dogs had become accustomed to hearing a certain sound prior to eating they would begin to salivate on cue. This is commonly referred to as behavioral conditioning, but Pavlov called the term conditional reflex. The concept of conditioning was key to the growing psychological field of behaviorism.

There was no single Pavlov’s dog, but the term has come to mean someone who responds predictably on instinct or through a conditioned response, rather than someone who has a reasoned or thinking response to a situation. To be a Pavlov’s dog might suggest that you have certain conditioned responses.

happy white dog

Say for example, you hated school. You nearly flunked; it made you nervous and tense, and emotionally upset. Now you have children attending school. Every time you step into a schoolroom to talk to a teacher, even if the subject matter is not tense, you might have a Pavlov’s dog response, or Pavlovian response. You might begin to sweat, feel closed in by the classroom, or react angrily to a teacher.

This Pavlov’s dog response has been studied by psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson and is referred to in their book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. Their studies suggest that men who had very negative school experiences may be far less involved in the education of their children, and may even refuse to go on school campuses because it triggers a Pavlov’s dog anxiety response. This response can be mitigated and lessened when men understand the trigger and deal with the deep emotions that have led to the response.

A simpler example of a Pavlov’s dog response might be the following. If your mother always used a particular cleaner when you had the stomach flu, you might feel nauseous when you smell that cleaner. Without reason, the immediate association with the smell is the sense you are going to throw up. Certain foods eaten that made you ill can also be disliked in a Pavlov’s dog way because immediate response was to make you sick.

dog biting a stick

There are plenty of ways that a Pavlov’s dog response can be positive. Perhaps your father spent weekend hours teaching you carpentry. The smell of wood might make you feel safe, comfortable and loved. A certain type of flower, maybe the one you always brought your first girlfriend could condition a happy response. We can respond in a Pavlov’s dog way to sounds, images, similar experiences, or smells.

Understanding the Pavlov’s dog response can also help people overcome post-traumatic stress. Some people can exhibit such deep stress when exposed to certain conditions, but these too can be logically understood, with time and work, and lessened. In a less serious sense, we are conditioned in a variety of Pavlovian ways. These may be completely harmless, just a pattern our brains fall into because of past exposure to certain conditions. Conditioning can even be joyful.

What is helpful in understanding conditioned response is that when it is harmful, work with a psychologist can often help change it. You can “uncondition” the mind so you are not a slave to a Pavlov’s dog response. The brain can build new neural pathways, most often achieved today with therapy methods like cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).

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