Pavlov’s dogs. I suspect by now, more than 100 years after the Nobel-Prize-winning physiologist conducted his famous experiments, the phrase barely calls to mind the very real canines who were the subjects in Ivan Pavlov’s lab. Say “Pavlov’s dogs” and most people immediately recall a little dinner bell or some secreting saliva or the strange simplicity of how we are wired.
Yet Pavlov conducted his research on real dogs. Dozens of them. Even in those relatively dim days for animal rights — the late 1890s up to 1930s — it was necessary not to be viewed by the general public as savaging a pooch in the name of science. And to this day, the affection and consideration Pavlov publicly expressed toward his “heroes” is one of the mysteries of the entire Pavlovian edifice. When in papers the great scientist tipped his cap to his dogs, crediting them as generous collaborators on a shared quest for knowledge, the question is raised: Was he for real? Or was this a PR ploy? To steal an ancient philosophical riddle from the Brothers Gibb, let’s ask: Just how deep was Pavlov’s love for the dogs that made his name?
A dangerously heart-tugging way to explore Pavlov’s relationship with his subjects is to recount his adoration for one particular Setter-Collie mix who became his pet at the lab. Pavlov called his favorite subject Druzhok, or “best friend.” Pavlov scholars have noted how, in the scientist’s letters, his tone changes when Druzhok enters the picture. His texts become more anecdotal as the scientist dotes on Druzhok’s quirks the way a proud owner newly enthralled with a puppy might.
Such abiding affection often pushed Pavlov to reveal how little of a cat person he was, like in this unintentionally humorous digression that appeared in an 1893 essay:
“We must painfully acknowledge that, precisely because of its great intellectual developments, the best of man’s domesticated animals — the dog — most often becomes the victim of physiological experiments. Only dire necessity can lead one to experiment on cats — on such impatient, loud, malicious animals. During chronic experiments, when the animal, having recovered from its operation, is under lengthy observation, the dog is irreplaceable; moreover, it is extremely touching. It is almost a participant in the experiments conducted upon it, greatly facilitating the success of the research by its understanding and compliance.”
Yet, to enter Pavlov’s lab was to step into a morally dubious zone where dogs were valued for their intelligence but were also put at extreme risk (sometimes with unspeakable consequences). Pavlov’s lab prided itself on treating its subjects as humanely as possible. Pavlov himself was quick to call out other labs’ methods as crude and irresponsible, while comparing their treatment of dogs to the smashing of a watch to understand how its gears worked. However, not all Pavlov’s specimens survived his experiments, while several others lived out their days in a vegetative state.
It’s perhaps because the phrase “Pavlov’s dogs” calls to mind the slightly slapstick performance of a creature behaving beyond its faculties that the actual animals receive short shrift by history, in both recognition and compassion. This is might also be due to the fact that Pavlov’s dogs numbered near one hundred. Let’s have the great scientist’s best friend stand in for the rest. Let’s let Druzhok’s intelligence and gentility touch us as it did his lovestruck owner, Doc Pavlov.