Pavlov’s Dogs


At the turn of the 20th century, a Russian physiologist, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, accidentally discovered Classical Conditioning while working on the physiology of the digestive systems of dogs. Pavlov was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1904 in recognition of his work on the physiology of digestion but he is perhaps best remembered for his contributions to the field of psychology, learning theories and behaviour therapies. Pavlov initially conducted his experiments on animals and his findings are relevant even 120 years later in animal learning, training and behaviour modification.


Of course, the fundamentals of Classical or Pavlovian Conditioning apply to many different organisms, including humans in a variety of settings, such as classrooms and learning environments. Although his research was invaluable to humanity, the experiments on over a 100 dogs in his lab in St. Petersburg would in today’s day and time raise the hair (hackles?) of animal lovers.

How Classical Conditioning Works In Everyday Life

Pavlov was one of the first scientists to demonstrate the relationship between environmental stimuli and behavioural responses.

If you pair a neutral stimulus (NS) with an unconditioned stimulus (US) that already triggers an unconditioned response (UR), that neutral stimulus will become a conditioned stimulus (CS), triggering a conditioned response (CR) similar to the original unconditioned response.

If you've ever been in a public area and heard a familiar phone notification tone, classical conditioning examples will certainly ring true for you. You hear that tone and instinctively reach for your smartphone, only to realise it's coming from someone else's phone.

The tone is a neutral stimulus. When you hear it, you perform the action of checking your phone (unconditioned response) to read a message from a loved one (unconditioned stimulus). When this action is repeated multiple times, it is called “classical conditioning”. After a certain amount of time, you reach for your phone (conditioned response) in your pocket without thinking whenever you hear this tone (conditioned stimulus) even if it isn't coming from your phone.


Many real-world classical conditioning examples are near perfect parallels for Pavlov's original experiment. When you're greeted with the familiar smell of pizza fresh out of the oven, you might already start salivating, even before you take your first bite. The aroma of the food to come serves the same role as Pavlov's ringing bell.



Pavlov's Dogs

Pavlov first presented the dogs with the sound of a bell; they did not salivate so this was a neutral stimulus. Then he presented them with food, and they salivated. The food was an unconditioned stimulus and salivation was an unconditioned response.

He then repeatedly presented the dogs with the sound of the bell first and then the food (pairing). After several repetitions, the dogs salivated when they heard the sound of the bell. The bell had become the conditioned stimulus and salivation had become the conditioned response.

Pavlovian Conditioning in Dog Training

Dogs do not understand or respond to human speech or languages the way humans do. For them a word like “sit” has zero meaning as such, ie, it is a neutral stimulus.


On the other hand, the action of sitting is a naturally occurring behaviour in dogs. Trained or untrained, all dogs are able to and choose to sit when they feel safe or want to observe something comfortably. The action of sitting is an unconditioned response.


Training a dog to “sit” has two initial stages. In the first, the dog is taught that sitting is an action that the humans want them to perform. For this, we use a lure or a gentle touch or wait for the action to occur naturally. In the second stage, the word “sit” is repeated JUST BEFORE the dog’s butt hits the ground. After many repetitions (100 or so) the dog learns to perform the action of sitting (conditioned response) almost automatically when they hear the word “sit” (conditioned stimulus).


This does not mean that the dog has learned to “sit” for life. There’s still a lot of work remaining in the training, which we’ll cover in our following blog posts. Watch out for them!


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