Pavlov-ring a bell? A little learning theory for your exam room


"I am a veterinarian, not a trainer." This might be true, but just like the laws of gravity, your patient will experience the effects of learning theory whether you are aware of them or not.

Read on before you pick up the other end of that leash. (Getty Images)

Knowledge of animal behavior and learning theory is required in everyday veterinary practice to avoid injuries to staff, to provide good customer service and to practice welfare-centered medicine. We all want the best for our patients. We want them to succeed, and even more so, we want to succeed with them. When holding onto one end of a leash with a dog attached to the other end, a handler has to be aware that the dog is adapting its behavior based on the environment and circumstances. Intensions aside, your patients are constantly learning, whether the handler is aware of it or not.

Veterinarians have the power to significantly impact their patients' stress levels and overall emotional and mental health by being aware of a few simple principles of learning theory as they apply in their daily practice. While most trainers are focused on operant conditioning, we as veterinarians should be very aware of classical conditioning. Small changes in our own behaviors can make a huge difference in our patients' experience at our clinic.

Does this ring a bell?

You may remember learning about Pavlov in school. Classical, or Pavlovian, conditioning happens when a previously neutral stimulus (such as the sound of a bell) is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (such as food) that elicits an involuntary response (such as salivation). Sound complicated? Just remember that if the bell reliably predicts food, then after a few pairings, the bell alone predicts something good to happen and elicits the salivation-no food is required.

And here is the parallel as it applies in your clinic:

The good news: No puppy or kitten is born with an innate fear of veterinarians-this is a conditioned response. (Sadly, we see the results of such conditioning every day in our exam rooms. A previously neutral stimulus of a trip to the veterinary clinic now elicits the prediction to a scary, dreaded place.)

The even better news: Classical conditioning works both ways. Wouldn't you rather be the predictor of “Yay, good things are coming my way!” in your canine patients' mind, instead of “Oh no, pain/discomfort is coming-defense mechanism please kick in fast!”

Every day, YOU have the opportunity to become the place of good things happening, even if you have to give vaccines or take rectal temperatures.

If you understand the simple, but not easy, principle of pairing a positive experience with a previously neutral stimulus, you can make every visit just a little bit better for your patients, your clients and yourself.

This is why you should care:

The big picture: Behavior issues are one of the leading reasons for why owners surrender their pets to shelters. If you can help the pets in your care experience less fear and stress and if you teach their owners about the power of training and positive associations, you can help keep the pets in the home. By using the power of classical conditioning coupled with low-stress handling to your advantage, you'll also reduce the number of bites you see in your clinic, save money on things such as worker compensation claims, retain clients by helping reduce behavior-related euthanasias and surrenders, and have calmer, more efficient visits with your patients! Owners will respect and mimic your compassionate approach, strengthening their bond with their pets and making their relationship (and their patronage of your facility) longer-lasting.

So what can you do the next time a patient enters your practice?

Don't loom over your patients. Instead, get down on their level and approach from the side. Let them make the first contact with you. Use quiet, happy talk and have plenty of very palatable treats (not the dry, hard dog biscuits) ready!

Time to put the thermometer you-know-where? Make it rain treats!

Injection time? Keep the treats coming!

Remember, the number one cause of bites is fear! Dogs and cats in veterinary offices are often in pain or discomfort and will remember previous unpleasant experiences. A slow, gentle approach, paired with treats that elicit a positive emotional response from the animal, will help you get what you need to do done more efficiently, calmly, and with more positive long-lasting impacts, for you and your patients.

Dr. Jeannine Berger obtained her veterinary degree in 1991 in Zurich, Switzerland. She attained board certification with the American College for Veterinary Behaviorists from UC Davis in 2007. In 2014, she attained board certification from the American College of Animal Welfare. Since 2011, she has been with the SPCA as Director of Behavior Resources where she oversees all aspects of behavior within the Society. Dr. Berger and her life partner, Jeff, live in Vacaville, California, with their dogs, cats, horses, sheep and chickens. Her hobbies include trail riding, hiking, skiing, and (red) wine tasting.

Ariel Stephens is the Dog Training Program Manager at the San Francisco SPCA. She has a bachelor's degree in animal science from the University of Massachusetts and has been working in animal rescue and welfare for the past eight years. She lives in Oakland, California, with three cats, plotting to move somewhere dog-friendly soon.