Conditioned manners

This Side Up


Carol calls it the “raw egg” look. I tend to think of Pavlov and wonder if the dogs he used for experiments are Ollie’s descendants.

The “raw egg” is a fitting description, for when Ollie sees us sit down for dinner, he starts drooling. This is not a moist jowl or a couple of drops of spittle from between clenched teeth. These are tendrils as gooey and sticky as an egg white extending from both sides of his jaw, almost to the floor. It’s not what you want on an oriental rug or even the tiled kitchen floor.

I suspect Ollie isn’t even aware it’s happening. With eyes glued to every movement between plate and mouth – up and down – he was oblivious when I would take a napkin and catch the glop. It wasn’t long before I had to repeat the process. This was an endless fountain.

There had to be a better way.

The first idea was to put him in his crate whenever we ate. I wasn’t convinced this would stop the drooling, but at least we could get through dinner without watching his display and having to clean up the mess.

It would be better if we could stop the salivation, but how? Had Pavlov attempted to modify reflex reactions? Google had to have the answer.

In seconds I found what Wikipedia had to say about Pavlov. While his legacy was his work on conditioned reflexes, he did a lot more than record drooling dogs. He studied digestive systems and transmarginal inhibition (TMI), which is the body’s natural response of shutting down when exposed to overwhelming stress or pain by electric shock.

Most startling was a photograph of a dog, used in his experiments, with saliva extending from its mouth like a giant icicle. It seems impossible that a dog could produce so much saliva. If this was an indication of what would happen to Ollie, then we surely better act now. Like some bad science fiction movie, would we be “oozed” from the house?

Pavlov conditioned his dogs with sound. Using a metronome, whistle or another device, but apparently not a bell as commonly thought, he produced a sound when feeding the dog. The dog quickly made the connection between the two and Pavlov discovered the animal would salivate just at the sound when food was not available.

We weren’t making any noises (that I was aware of) that Ollie would associate with food. He just starts his drooling as soon as we sit at the table. Might he not salivate if we didn’t sit down? That was carrying things too far – eating dinner while holding a plate was not going to happen.

Although we didn’t bring up the drooling when veterinarian Dr. Barbara Korry visited us this summer, she suggested Ollie be given a designated place while we ate. She thought a towel would work and he would come to identify it as “his place.” Better yet, I thought, the towel would spare the rug.

Carol spread out the towel and we had him lie down on it. That lasted for about 10 seconds. He was instantly beside me with those attentive eyes and, you guessed it, the drool. I brought him back to the towel and went through the process again … and again. Finally, he laid down and put his head on his outstretched paws. Dinner was cold, but I was making progress.

Now dinner starts with the command to sit, followed by that to lie down. Grudgingly, he does it. His eyes follow us as we eat and he’s up as soon as it looks like we’re done. But his manners have improved.

Pavlov would be impressed. Ollie’s been conditioned to use a towel.


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