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Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning

The name Pavlov is synonymous with dogs. A bell rings and the dogs salivate at the prospect of food. But do you know how this behaviour came about and why it’s so significant?  Here’s a bit of a history and psychology lesson for you.

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physicist who was particularly interested in human and animal behaviour. His biggest contribution to the field of psychology is the theory of classical conditioning – which he demonstrated by means of his famous experiment with dogs. To put it simply, classical conditioning is when a reflex (which is automatic) is conditioned (or manipulated) into responding to an external stimulus.

It all began when he first noticed his dogs would salivate (the reflex) when he brought them food.  No surprises there – this is an automatic reflex, but soon he noticed the dogs would begin to salivate when they just saw him (food or not), and then even when they saw just his lab assistant. So Pavlov started experimenting. He started ringing a bell (the conditioned stimulus) every time he gave his dogs food. And soon enough, after several repetitions they would salivate only when the bell rang.  The dogs had been “conditioned” into salivating when the bell rang.

In summary:

Food = Salivation Bell = No response Bell + Food = Salivation Bell = Salivation

This theory became very influential in the field of psychology and is used widely in dog training. Initially, a reward is associated with performing a particular task, but eventually the task will be performed without the reward. However, dogs are classically conditioned (both positively and negatively) in everyday life too. For example; your dogs start trembling with fear when you put them in the car because they think they’re going to the vet (negative) or they start wagging their tails when they see you with their lead because they know they are going for a walk (positive). You can even change your dogs’ behaviour or recondition their behaviour using classical conditioning. If your dog hates getting into your car for fear of going to the vet, you can condition him into behaving enthusiastically when he gets into the car by first walking him to somewhere he loves (such as the park), and then driving him home – he will eventually associate getting into the car with something he loves.

To summarise, Pavlov’s theory (or classical conditioning) can teach your dog to respond to a stimulus, initially by using an unconditioned stimulus (food) that brings about a reflex response (salivation), but with enough repetition, to eventually teach the dog to respond to only the conditioned stimulus (the bell).

Give it a try – and do some of your own experiments at home! With repetition (and patience), simple voice commands will act as the “bell” (the conditioned stimulus).

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