Staff Perspective: Classical Conditioning and Other Excuses for Talking About My Dog

Staff Perspective: Classical Conditioning and Other Excuses for Talking About My Dog

Kelly Chrestman, Ph.D.

I recently received some feedback on training materials I put together, about how PTSD develops after a combat trauma. I had mentioned that classical conditioning explains how stimuli that occur in close proximity can become associated, resulting in conditioned responses. Of course, I mentioned Pavlov, because, dogs! Right? I might also have mentioned that our family dog salivates and does a little happy dance right on cue every morning when I grind the coffee, just before I walk over and scoop her food into the dish.

So, the feedback was something along the lines of, “How disrespectful it is to compare our nation’s Veterans, and the sacrifices they make, to dogs”. This caused me to pause for a minute. That isn’t the comparison I was trying to make at all. I don’t think combat Veterans are the same as dogs. I was actually comparing ALL humans to dogs and pointing out how simple behavioral principles like conditioning can apply to complex human experiences.

Reductionist? Sure. Of course, there are additional theoretical principles that inform our understanding of PTSD and treatment. Classical conditioning is just one layer, wedged between the amygdala and the Skinner box, but still in the same sub-sandwich extravaganza that includes cognitive schema and Viktor Frankl. But it’s a pretty solid layer. I wouldn’t want to make a sandwich without it.

Other layers may be better at explaining things in a way that feeds the human need to feel complex and special. And of course, we humans are special and complex, beautifully so. These other schools of thought are extremely useful as frameworks for understanding our behavior complexity, from compassion to cruelty, from survival to self-destruction, even seemingly contrary bits like altruism… and voting against our own self-interest. Of course, so does conditioning theory, just without the special sauce.

Conditioning theories don’t answer existential questions so much as they anchor us in a storm of existential confusion. Pair a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus enough times and it will start to evoke the same response. Ring a bell, sing a song, or say a phrase every time you feed your dog and your dog will start anticipating the food as evidenced by salivation. Reward your child for making the right and difficult decisions and watch your child grow to be a well principled adult; catch more flies with honey, squeaky wheels get the grease and so on and so on.

When I teach classical and operant conditioning as a theory for understanding the development of PTSD, I am simplifying a very complex array of human behavior – physiology, cognition and emotion, in order to extract principles that predict responses, and that ultimately guide treatment. To me, finding commonality between our own responses and those of primates or dogs or mice, is to recognize that there are some principles that are clear and strong across all species, and we can hold on to those when the contextual drama makes it hard to see how to help.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Kelly Chrestman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist working as the lead for online consultation services at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.