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a photograph of Petrovich Pavlov doing experiments
figure 1  


Pavlov's dog. A reference to a psychological conditioning, typically used as a simile: like Pavlov's dog; even references to salivation are, at times, implicitly Pavlovian.

It was Russian psychologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) who discovered a response in animals that is referred to as “conditioned reflex.” It seems that research scientists can be trained to ring bells at the sight of dogs preparing to salivate.reference 1

At the Nobel Foundation e-Museum, they virtually wax poetic in singing his paeans. “Ivan Pavlov's description on how animals (and humans) can be trained to respond in a certain way to a particular stimulus, has drawn a tremendous amount of interest ever since he first presented his findings. His work paved the way for a new and objective method of studying animal and human behavior.”reference 2 And, to be generous, these were exciting ideas. However, like many researchers with a new toy theory, Pavlov decided that he could explain nearly everything about behavior with it and even found a spot in the brain that accounted for this reflex. As with so many similar excesses, however, the theory turned out to have many limits, and the notion of a physiological reflex spot was unfounded.



1. Pickering, David, Alan Isaacs, and Elizabeth Martin, eds. 1992. Brewer's Dictionary of 20th-Century Phrase and Fable. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 465.


2. Nobel e-Museum. 2001. Pavlov. The Nobel Foundation. Accessed Nov 14 2001 from http:// medicine/e ducational/ pavlov/.
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a diagram of Pavlov's initial experiments showing a dog's digestive tract spacer
figure 2

As is the case with many scientific discoveries, this one was serendipitous. Pavlov was trying to describe the mechanisms of the physiology of digestion, and the drooling of the dogs was muddying his data. In fact, it is this work on digestion—not the bells and whistles part—that won him his Nobel Prize. He wanted to measure the flow of gastric juices; to do so he devised a way to measure what was going on in a dog's stomach while it was eating, digesting, and otherwise engaged. He surgically implanted a tube and probably would not win the animal rights people's seal of approval, but he's not around to hound about it any more.

The whole thing about anticipatory salivation was that it was screwing up his experiments. Gastric juices were flowing before there was anything even to digest. What was the deal? Were the dogs smelling something? How did their stomachs know that food was coming? As Pavlov would have you believe it, drooling at the smell of food is the unconditioned response; coming to associate bell ringing, or say, the sound of an electric can opener, with food and drooling when you hear it, is a conditioned response. I could explain the whole thing, but you could look it up yourself. The results were published in 1903 in a paper called “The Experimental Psychology and Psychopathology of Animals.” The Nobel e-Museum has an interactive game that will help you learn all about it.reference 3
3. Kiger, Patrick J. 1999. Wayback Machine -- Russia, 1899. Discovery, Online. Accessed Nov 27 2001 from http:// stories/ wayback/ wayback.html
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a photograph of a statue of a dog on a pedestal spacer
figure 3

Pavlov is remembered for this work above all others because the concept has entered popular culture and is in widespread use. There is a popular music group called Pavlov's Dog and allusions show up all the time. I think that some folks like the idea that they can control others by conditioning them. The American psychologist B.F. Skinner gave a great deal of credit to Pavlov in the formation of his theories of behaviorism: the idea that humans respond to different kinds of incentives and reinforcements, especially positive ones, which are seen as stimuli intended to condition responses. These might take the forms of grades, kisses, or money. Even Skinner eventually conceded that there were limits. He raised his daughter in something called a Skinner Box, intended to guide her to maturity.

Because many of Pavlov's experimental subjects gave their lives in service of his scientific work (at least Skinner's daughter survived the process!), there is a monument to these dogs at the Institute of Experimental Medicine in St. Petersburg, Russia.
About the illustrations: Figure 1 is not Pavlov; he was even more of the mad scientist type. This is one of Pavlov's assistants, as he keeps a close eye on his instrument recording reflex action. Presumably, the dog is drooling.reference 4

Figure 2 is an illustration of just what Pavlov did to the dogs. You can't see it very well here, but be grateful for that. I have shown the apparatus that was surgically implanted in red (along with the food dish and collection bottle, which were not surgically implanted) just so you could see.reference 5

Figure 3. The Monument to a Dog.reference 6

These images are copyrighted and unlicensed. I believe that the use of these works in the article “Pavlov's Dog” to illustrate the subject in question where no free equivalent is available or could be created that would adequately give the same information qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. Other uses of this image may constitute copyright infringement.

4. Ibid.



5. Ibid.

6. Institute of Experimental Medicine. 2001. Monument to a Dog. Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. Accessed Nov 27 2001 from http:// english/ dog-monum.htm.


see also: try it on the dog; Brown Dog Affair
cf: man's best friend
Last updated: July 28, 2008
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