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Classical Conditioning its True History

Classical conditioning, celebrated number one type of learning for dogs.

The thing that most people don’t know is that Classical Conditioning was actually discovered accidentally by Ivan Pavlov.

Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who discovered this phenomenon while doing research on digestion of dogs. His research was aimed at better understanding the digestive patterns in dogs and other animals.

During these experiments, he would place meat powder in the mouths of dogs that had tubes inserted into various organs to measure bodily responses. What was noticed was that the dogs began to salivate before the meat powder was presented to them. Eventually the dogs actually began to salivate as soon as the person feeding them would enter the room. He began to gain more and more interest in this phenomenon and abandoned his digestion research in favor of his now famous Classical Conditioning study.

Pavlov’s dogs as everyone still calls it, more than 100 years after the Nobel-Prize-winning physiologist conducted his famous experiments. This phrase hardly calls to mind the very real canines who were the subjects in Ivan Pavlov’s experiments. They treated like our Lab rat of today in modern Life Sciences. When asked about Pavlov’s dogs most people including Dog Trainer’s and behaviourist   immediately recall a little dinner bell or some secreting saliva or the strange simplicity of how we are wired.

Ivan Pavlov conducted his research on real dogs. Even in those relatively dim days for animal rights the late 1890s up to 1930s it was necessary not to be viewed by the general public as savaging a pooch in the name of science. To this very day, the affection and consideration Pavlov publicly expressed toward his “dog’s” is one of those true mysteries. As in the papers of the day the great scientist tipped his cap to his dogs, he would credit them as collaborators on his quest for knowledge. However the question is raised: Was he for real? Or was this just PR stunt? The real question is how deep was Pavlov’s love for the dogs that made his name?

When you look back at his subjects he recounts his adoration for one particular Setter-collie mix who actually became his pet at the lab. Pavlov called him Druzhok which means best friend. His love for animals has to be somewhat called in to dispute when in 1893 the below appeared in an essay written by Ivan Pavlov:

“We must painfully acknowledge that, precisely because of its great intellectual developments, the best of man’s domesticated animals — the dog — most often becomes the victim of physiological experiments. Only dire necessity can lead one to experiment on cats — on such impatient, loud, malicious animals. During chronic experiments, when the animal, having recovered from its operation, is under lengthy observation, the dog is irreplaceable; moreover, it is extremely touching. It is almost a participant in the experiments conducted upon it, greatly facilitating the success of the research by its understanding and compliance.”

Entering Pavlov’s lab was to step into a morally dubious zone; the dogs seemed to be valued for their intelligence but in turn where also put under extreme risk sometimes with dire consequences. Pavlov’s lab was said to pride itself on treating its subjects as humanely as possible. Pavlov was quick to call other labs’ damming their methods as cruel and irresponsible. He compared their treatment of dogs to the smashing of a watch to understand how it worked. However what you also have to understand that with all this so-called compassion for dog’s Pavlov still continued his experiments on what he called specimens. Not all survived his experiments and several others lived out their days in a vegetative state.

Perhaps the phrase “Pavlov’s dogs” calls to mind for you the slightly funny and amusing image of a creature behaving in such a manner at the ring of a simple bell. The fact remains that the actual animals involved in these experiments have only ever received a small place in history, both in recognition and compassion. Pavlov’s dogs numbered near one hundred, one hundred dogs experimented on in a Laboratory just so we could know that a dog would salivate at the smell or sight of food. So we could learn that by adding a neutral stimulus like a bell or in modern training now a clicker the dog reacts in a condition response. Simple really but it beggars believe why we hail Ivan Pavlov as the hero of dog Training and Behaviour.  He was neither a Dog Trainer nor a Behaviourist he was Scientist experimenting on dogs to make his name in the history books. There is no disputing the fact that offering a dog food to do a certain action eventually conditions them to always perform the same action on command. However the next time you hear someone talk about Classical Conditioning or Operant Conditioning just remember its true history.


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