An Example of Classical Conditioning That is Occurring in Our Home with Patrick

Classical Conditioning is one of the most accepted and well-known theories of Psychology today. It was discovered by Ian Pavlov in the 1890s by accident while he was conducting experiments on salivation in dogs. He predicted that dogs would salivate when introduced to food; what he found is that not only did this happen, but the dogs would also salivate when they experienced something associated with the food, such as his assistant walking into the room to feed them.

So, he decided to run some studies on what is now known as Classical Conditioning. He began by introducing the clicking of a metronome, initially a neutral stimulus, right before the dogs were fed, with food being the unconditioned stimulus. The unconditioned response to the stimulus of food, before Classical Conditioning took effect, was that the dogs would salivate when introduced to food. But, eventually the dogs began to pair this neutral stimulus (the sound of the metronome with the unconditioned stimulus (food), which resulted in the dogs eventually salivating when they heard the metronome, even if food was not present. Thus, the metronome became a conditioned stimulus, while salivation became a conditioned response, and the theory of Classical Conditioning was born.

Classical Conditioning is used today in all kinds of ways. Advertisers might use it by pairing a pleasant scent or image with a product that they want to sell. Educators might use it to bring about positive changes in behavior in students who are struggling in school or even in social settings. And, animal behaviorists use it to train and help animals. When Marmalade was alive, for example, there was a lot of competition and dominance behavior happening between him and the other boy cats, particularly Lucy. He and Lucy actually ended up in what we called a “peeing war”, where they would pee on each other’s beds back and forth and in places where the other one liked to lay or hang out. For awhile, David and I had to wash at least one bed a day because of this, and of course our house smelled terrible. So, after making sure that they were not physically sick in any way, we consulted an animal behaviorist.

The animal behaviorist gave us a number of things to do to help with this issue. One of them, which relies on Classical Conditioning, is Systematic Desensitization, which is widely used not just in animal behaviorism but also in counseling and psychology. What we did was that each of us held one of the boy cats on each side of the room, and if they did not show aggression towards each other and stayed relaxed, we would give both of them the treat. This helped them to associate a treat plus relaxation, which is a positive stimulus to them, with the presence of the other cats. Slowly, we would move the cats closer and closer to each other while continuing to give them treats when they did not show aggression and stayed calm around the other cat. All of this time, they learned to associate each other with a positive experience and relaxation. Soon, the cats began to get along better and tolerated each other’s presence much better, although they still weren’t necessarily friends. And eventually, the peeing stopped.

Thus, Classical Conditioning techniques have been quite helpful for us in our home. However, yesterday I came across a way that it definitely is not helping one of our cats, Patrick. Now, one thing to know about Classical Conditioning is that it is largely an unconscious process; the pairing of a neutral stimulus with a unconditioned response can happen randomly, as it originally did with Pavlov’s Dogs. And, this seems to be the case with Patrick and his propensity to drool when he gets his medications.

Patrick did well with his medications for some time, but eventually he got tired of having them. Plus, we have had to add more medications to his mixture of them because he started having nausea and a lack of appetite over time. A couple of months ago, then, he began to try to spit out his medications, both the liquid ones and the pills. This resulted in him drooling because it left a bad taste in his mouth, which then led to him drooling after getting certain medications. Before, when he just swallowed his medication right away, he saved himself from this. Even so, though, for some reason he continued to try to spit out his medications, even though he was getting a negative reaction to it.

Yesterday, when I went to give him a medication that commonly results in drooling, I started talking about his medication. Also, he was sitting close to where the medications are, so he was able to hear and possibly see me getting his medication ready. By the time that I approached him with his medication, he was already drooling. I wondered at first if I hadn’t already given him his medication and forgotten about it, but I knew that I hadn’t because I stick to a schedule when it comes to his medications to ensure that David and I do not forget a medication or give it to him twice.

Even though I am familiar with Classical Conditioning and the story of Pavlov’s Dogs, I was still shocked that Patrick was drooling in response to understanding that he was about to have his medication. And, to me it is very concerning because I know that he hates drooling. Still, I gave him his medication anyways (I had to). It was still quite sad to see this happen though.

Later in the evening, Patrick drooled again right before David gave him his later medications. And of course, he drooled after the medication as well.

I’m not sure how to extinguish this response. We have tried many things help Patrick not drool, such as putting the medications as far back in his mouth as possible, petting him on his face to distract him so that he doesn’t try to spit his medication out, and even singing songs to him to distract him. But, it seems that despite our efforts, he continues to drool. And now he’s even doing it before he gets his medications! Without being able to extinguish his drooling in response to medications, I imagine that it might be difficult to extinguish this conditioned response. He does have an appointment with his Oncologist tomorrow, though, who hopefully knows what to do in this situation. If not, we may have to consult the behaviorist again.

It’s always interesting to see psychological theories and unconscious behaviors at work, though, even if it is really sad in Patrick’s situation. It shows how much the unconscious really can affect our behavior.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment below.

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