The kingdom of dogs

Matthew Adams revisits Pavlov’s labs from a dog’s perspective.

We have all heard of Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), the legendary Russian physiologist turned psychologist. He’s famous for the discovery of learning through association that revolutionised psychology, and kickstarted one of the most important and controversial schools of thought in the discipline – behaviourism. But how often do we stop to think about the lives of Pavlov’s dogs?

Every student of psychology learns about what is now referred to as ‘classical conditioning’, and Ivan Pavlov remains one of the most cited psychologists of all time to this day. The term a ‘Pavlovian response’ has even entered our everyday language, to refer to the prevalence of this type of learning in everyday life. Yet until recently I knew very little about Pavlov, less still about his dogs. I had never thought to question the familiar, iconic image of Pavlov.

Then a couple of years ago I began to research, write and subsequently teach on the topic of human-animal relations. As a critical psychologist with an interdisciplinary bent, I came to the subject via theoretical developments in the humanities and social sciences, where animal life is increasingly in the spotlight, and growing attention paid to the lives of other species as they are entangled in our own (human) personal, social and cultural lives. This shift is sometimes referred to as the ‘animal turn’, and you can see its impact too in the emergence of interdisciplinary fields such as Human-Animal Studies and posthumanism, and in the important work of environmental philosophers like Donna Haraway and Vinciane Despret.

As I began to learn more about the field, I noticed that little attention had been paid to the lives of animals, or human-animal interactions, in experimental psychology, past or present. In contemporary accounts of Pavlov’s achievements, his dogs mostly appear as anonymous and interchangeable experimental objects – exemplified in those familiar textbook diagrams explaining the conditioning process, complete with generic canine images. The role of dogs as living animals in these experiments rarely features in textbooks or academic accounts, which emphasise a tale of scientific progress and experimentation. Cherkaev and Tipikina’s description is representative of the general tone: ‘hard-set laws derive from Ivan Pavlov’s studies of animals’ higher nervous activity, which allows animal behaviour to be broken down into predictable and modifiable reflexes… Pavlov’s famous experiment of the drooling dog shows that there are two types of reflexes: innate reflexes that are evoked by the irritant itself and acquired reflexes that are evoked by subsequent associations’ (Cherkaev & Tipikina, 2018, p.29).

As a psychologist influenced by the ethical and theoretical pull of posthumanism, and its challenge to anthropocentricism, this absence seemed significant – an example of a persistent blind-spot in psychology’s understanding of itself. I decided to re-examine Pavlov’s experiments through a focus on the everyday experiences of the dogs involved, taking them as legitimate historical subjects – a novel kind of ‘history from below’ (Montgomery & Kalof, 2010). I set out to find out all I could about their lives, their interactions with human co-workers, and the part they played in the laboratory setting and the wider life and times of Pavlov, assisted in particular by the remarkably detailed work of Pavlov’s biographer Daniel Todes.

I soon discovered that in paying closer attention to the actual experiences of Pavlov’s dogs and their relations with humans, the received image of order and calculability slips considerably, to reveal something much more complex, messy and interesting. Over a career spanning six decades, Pavlov housed, cared for and experimented on thousands of dogs in his St Petersburg labs. They were incarcerated, starved, tortured, driven mad, vivisected and killed; but they were also named, cared for, attributed complex personalities and immortalised in countless lectures, doctoral theses and lab reports now long forgotten. Here I share just a few significant moments that throw a spotlight on Pavlov’s dogs, and in doing so invite us to consider one of the most celebrated milestones in psychology from a new perspective – more zoocentric than anthropocentric.

‘I will now shred dogs without mercy’
Pavlov’s early studies concentrated on the relationship between eating and variation in the secretion of gastric, pancreatic and salivary fluids in dogs. To ‘solve the problem’ of observing and measuring secretions accurately, Pavlov and his co-workers performed surgery on the dogs which made possible his ‘sham feeding’ system: ‘Pavlov would remove a dog’s [o]esophagus and create an opening, a fistula, in the animal’s throat, so that, no matter how much the dog ate, the food would fall out and never make it to the stomach. By creating additional fistulas along the digestive system and collecting the various secretions, he could measure their quantity and chemical properties in great detail' (Specter, 2014, p.3). All whilst the dog was still living. Many dogs were sacrificed along the way in developing such procedures. Operating techniques routinely failed, whilst new developments and the promise of success often increased Pavlov’s fervour ‘I’m trying – and will now shred dogs without mercy. You know, I have not worked so hard for a long time’ (cited in Todes, 2014, p.106).

If my intention was to damn Pavlov in retrospect I would stop there perhaps, or detail some of the unquestionably barbaric experimental procedures he inflicted on his dogs throughout his career, such as the later conditioning experiments designed to induce neuroses, pursued relentlessly in the purposefully built Tower of Silence. However, in placing animal life in the spotlight, I want to take the opportunity here to complicate the story a little. A significant moment for our dogs is also pivotal in Pavlov’s career and his subsequent legend. Following up initially incidental observations, by the early 1900s Pavlov and hundreds of co-workers, human and nonhuman, embarked on the systematic and almost exclusive study of saliva drops and what were now termed ‘conditional reflexes’ via thousands of experimental trials. The measurement of salivation depended upon a surgical procedure that was relatively discreet – the insertion of one or more fistulas into a dog’s cheek or neck to divert saliva from the three salivary glands into a measuring device. This meant the dogs lived longer, and it was common practice for co-workers to be assigned a single dog for the duration of a series of studies (Pavlov rarely conducted experiments himself). Experiments often lasted for eight to ten hours at a time, sometimes much longer, with human and dog in close proximity.

As Todes noted, this set-up facilitated a relationship in some ways akin to ‘pet and master’; it resembles what we might today call a companion species bond. That said, on the experimenter stand it was a relationship often defined by a shared tedium. The hours would often drag for both – experiments were monotonous and wearisome, involving little more than pressing a button to trigger a stimulus, measuring saliva, proffering small amounts of food at strictly regulated intervals. And then waiting. Apparently, a key challenge was staying awake – either animal falling asleep at the ‘wrong’ time was potentially ruinous for the experimental procedure. However, it also meant human and canine co-workers got to know each other to an unprecedented extent compared to Pavlov’s early career. Pavlov used this closeness to his advantage at the moment he needed it most – just as his whole theoretical edifice was in danger of collapsing around him.

The character of dogs
As Pavlov’s career progressed, the number of experiments grew, producing increasing amounts of data. Despite the outward appearance of order, and apparent discovery of ‘hard set laws’, the reality was far messier – and all because of the dogs. Individual dogs were way more idiosyncratic and unpredictable than Pavlov publicly admitted then or is recognised today. Even the simplest and most ‘basic’ patterns in the way conditioned responses worked were subject to a great deal of variation and complexity. Different dogs responded to the same conditioned stimuli in different ways, in terms of the amount and timing of salivation; some conditioned responses were reinforced much more quickly in some dogs compared to others, and so on; just as the same dogs responded differently on different days – facts well known by Pavlov and his co-workers, but actively erased from academic publications and public pronouncements, and maintained as what Todes refers to as an ‘industrial secret’.

The idea that ‘in Pavlovian conditioning the animal remains essentially passive’ (Glickstein & Berlucchi, 2008, p.117) was simply not borne out by reality. The dogs’ liveliness and unpredictability contributed to the experimental set up in ways that could barely be contained. Pavlov never tired of trying, developing a personality theory of ‘nervous types’ to try and encompass such diverse data. It is here that he depended on the close relationship between human and canine co-workers. He hoped to explain variation – why one dog responded differently to another – through reference to a dog’s character, which could be derived from observation (and of course, retrospectively, through results!). To that end, co-workers were actively encouraged to closely observe idiosyncrasies in their own dogs’ behaviour on and off the stand. Such attention became part of experimental protocol, in which Pavlov fully participated, offering his own ‘anthropomorphic’ interpretations. Following this procedure, dogs were routinely described as ‘weak or strong, compliant or independent, passive or impressionable, aloof or sociable, modest or greedy, cowardly or heroic’ (Todes, 2014, p.495); characterisations which were then invoked in interpreting varied experimental data.

The ‘kingdom of dogs’ – as one visitor described Pavlov’s St Petersburg set up – was recognised then as home to a range of distinct characters, and characters were identified via close observation and interaction with dogs, during experiments and in the shared space of the laboratory life more generally. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that a dog’s observed character no doubt evolved in the context of their relations with other dogs, human co-workers and handlers; and was situationally interpreted in terms of the demands of the experiment and the data produced. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Pavlov never succeeded in containing or quantifying the canine component. He was always playing catch-up with the way in which the relational configurations of dogs and co-workers exceeded calculability – his initial description of two ‘nervous types’ (excitation/inhibition) expanded to 23, and according to Todes he continuously wrestled with doubt about the whole project on this account.

Rewriting our texts
There’s much more to the story of Pavlov’s dogs. Their experiences were entangled with Pavlov and his co-workers in tumultuous and febrile times in and outside the lab. We are talking about one of the most significant periods in Russian and global history, with St Petersburg, Pavlov’s lifelong home, at its centre, taking in war, revolution, starvation, floods, and the rise of Soviet science. I cover some of this detail in a recent journal article, and I’m working on telling more of the story from a dog’s perspective.

It is an understatement to say that we rarely get to hear about these aspects of Pavlov’s work today, a forgetting which extends to the majority of scholarship on Pavlov, where dogs appear only in passing as experimental objects, never as subjects about which we should express care or concern. I hope I have offered a perspective here which challenges the idea of animals as passive, interchangeable objects, which can be seamlessly slotted into experimental designs to produce hard set laws. It also raises ethical questions about animal welfare that are often dormant in psychology, and not just in accounting for its past.

In an account of their critical review of Zimbardo’s infamous prison studies in The Psychologist, informed by newly available archival materials, Stephen Reicher and colleagues conclude that ‘there is no longer any excuse for repeating a story which is so deeply flawed. We need to get busy rewriting our texts and revising our lectures’ (2018, p.1). The same, surely, can be said of Pavlov’s experiments and the animal life at their heart.

- Matthew Adams is a Principal Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Brighton.

[email protected]

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber