What is Pavlov’s dog experiment? What are the applications of Pavlov’s findings in the daily life of our dogs?
Who was Ian Petrovitch Pavlov?
Ivan Petrovitch Pavlov (1849-1936) was a Russian physician and physiologist who became famous thanks to the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine that he received in 1904 to reward his work on the physiology of digestion. Among these works, the most famous experiment is the one of “Pavlov’s dog”. It allowed highlighting the conditional reflexes and the principle of classical conditioning.
Pavlov’s dog experiment
In the late 1880s, the scientist Ivan Pavlov was researching the salivation of dogs as part of his studies on the physiology of digestion. To do this, he had the idea of equipping a dog with a salivary fistula, a sort of test tube designed to collect the saliva produced by the animal’s salivary gland.
After placing food in the dog’s mouth, he observed the effect on the dog’s salivary response. As his experiment progressed, Pavlov noticed that the dog began to salivate even before it was fed. The dog would start producing more saliva just at the sight of the food that was going to be put in its mouth, anticipating the moment when it would happen.
Based on this discovery, Ivan Pavlov wanted to know if a neutral stimulus (which does not provoke any response) such as the sound of a bell could also trigger the same salivation phenomenon in the dog in the same way as the stimulus that carries meaning for the dog (the food).
For the rest of his experiment, he, therefore, rang a bell each time he presented food to his dog. Then, after a while, Pavlov continued to ring the bell without giving the food to the animal. The dog then began to salivate at the mere sound of the bell. Thus, the neutral stimulus (the bell sound) initially became a meaningful stimulus for the dog after a period of conditioning. The dog came to associate the bell with the imminence of food distribution.
Through his experiment, Pavlov demonstrated what we now call Pavlovian conditioning (or classical conditioning) and conditional reflexes, these involuntary reactions of the organism caused by an external signal.
A little vocabulary
In Pavlov’s experiment :
the bell is called the neutral stimulus before conditioning,
the food is called the unconditioned stimulus,
the salivation to the presentation of the food alone (before training) is called the response or unconditional reflex,
the salivation of the dog after exercise is called the conditional-response/reflex (or responding behaviour),
the sound of the bell after activity becomes a conditional stimulus.
Classical conditioning in dog training
Pavlov’s principle of classical conditioning, also called responsive conditioning, is applied in the daily life of our domestic dogs without us necessarily being aware of it. Nevertheless, it is the basis of learning by association.
In dogs, classical conditioning occurs when the conditional stimulus (e.g. a sound) precedes the unconditional stimulus (e.g. presentation of food) by a few seconds. Then, the association between these two stimuli is repeated several times over some time.
For example, every day, we make a noise with the leash we take before going for a walk with our dog. After a while, the simple fact of taking the leash is enough to trigger excitement in the dog in anticipation of the hike. The dog has been conditioned to this.
There is a gradual extinction of the effectiveness of the conditional stimulus (leash noise.) when it is presented alone several times in a row. In our previous example, if the leash sound is not immediately followed by a walk several days in a row, the dog will eventually stop showing joy at the sound of the leash.
For example, this principle of extinction can be used to “decondition” a dog that starts barking at the doorbell. If he starts barking, he is excited and has associated the sound of the doorbell with the imminent arrival of a guest at home. If you start ringing the doorbell “for nothing” and no one comes in, your dog will eventually stop barking when he hears the doorbell. To be effective, this “exercise” must be repeated several times a day over some time.
Read also: The different learning techniques in dogs.