Dear Science Teacher

Dear Science Teacher:

My son has asked me to write you to explain why his assignment will not be turned in on time this morning.

As it was explained to me, the experiment he was to conduct involved a re-creation of Pavlov's study of "conditioned response," in which dogs hear a bell when they are served dinner and eventually come to associate the sound with food to the extent that they drool whenever they hear a ringing noise. (Frankly, I had reservations over the idea that my dog would start slobbering whenever I received a phone call, but choose not to express my doubts in the name of scientific progress.)

Here are my own observations of how the experiment proceeded.

Step One: Son gathers kibbles in a small bag. Dog expresses immediate interest, racing over to regard boy with frantic expression. Son scolds dog for drooling before the experiment is even started. Sister shrieks that dog slobber is gross. Mother evicts scientist and dog from kitchen. Son complains that nobody cares about his science project, but he's wrong -- the dog obviously DOES care, with a passion bordering on obsessive.

Step Two: The experiment is reassembled in the living room. In a demonstration of human Pavlovian response, my son reacts to the proximity of the television by picking up the remote and surfing channels. The dog whines, eager to begin work on the project.

Step Three: The son's channel surfing stumbles upon the movie "Bikini Car Wash III," and I sort of lose track of what's going on for several minutes.

Step Four: The wife steps right in front of the television (during, I might add, a particularly tense scene in which the number of vehicles coming through the car wash threatens to overwhelm the system, causing soapy water to spray all over the hapless ladies who are running the operation) and states that if all we're going to do is sit around and watch TV, she has a whole list of chores that need to be done.

Step Five: The TV is turned off. Father and son privately grumble to each other that if Pavlov had had his mother around, we never would have learned how to make dogs drool on command, and the world would be much worse off.

Step Six: The bell is rung. A treat is dispensed to the dog. Then the son rings the bell without giving a treat. Before the father can explain that conditioning takes longer than a single exposure, the dog snatches the bag of kibbles.

Step Seven: Son takes off in mad pursuit of dog. Mother yells from kitchen to stop running in the house. Father furtively turns on TV to check on developments at the car wash.

Step Eight: Gradually it occurs to the father that the dog has something else in its mouth: the father's shoe. The father yells for the animal to drop it, but the animal pretends it has forgotten how to understand English. The son finally tackles the stupid canine, knocking over a lamp in the process. How did the dog get my shoe, the father demands. I gave it to her, the son replies. Why on earth would you do that? the father inquires. Because I ran out of dog food, the son explains patiently.

Step Nine: Another baggie of kibbles is assembled. The dog appears delighted at how the afternoon is going. The bell is rung, the dog is fed. This is repeated ten times, with the subject of the experiment becoming increasingly excited. The eleventh time, with the bag of treats wisely held out of reach, the bell is rung without a treat. The dog, now in a frenzy, barks frantically. The wife yells to please keep that animal quiet. Fearing she might come back into the living room and see the TV on, the father urges the scientist to give the canine some food to shut it up. It gobbles up the treat without appearing to chew and immediately commences barking again. More food is dispensed.

Step Ten: The dog has discovered that if it wants a treat, it need only to bark. This is called "conditioned response."

Pavlov would be proud.

[ by W. Bruce Cameron Copyright © 2001 -- { used with permission } ]


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