Pavlov’s dog, Sparky and us

By: By Mac McPhail - Contributing columnist

I walk out the back door heading out to the garage. As I head toward the garage, I look over next door, and there he comes. It’s Sparky, coming over to get a treat. The little dog had heard our back door shut and was coming to hopefully get an animal cracker, a cookie, or a piece of bread. So Sparky will sit there, at the edge of our driveway, tail wagging and mouth slobbering, waiting. He might even let out a bark, just to let you know that he is there. And he usually ends up getting that treat.

Sparky is actually the dog’s nickname. (Didn’t you know that dogs could have nicknames?) The Yang family named him Jinx. We didn’t know his real name at first, so Terri started calling him Sparky, because he was so lively and active. That was years ago, he’s not quite so sparky now. But he still responds to “Sparky.” Of course, I think he will respond to just about anything if he thinks there is a treat involved.

Sparky hears our backdoor shut. He runs, well, sometimes strolls, (he is getting older) to the edge of our driveway, tail wagging, mouth slobbering. To Sparky the dog, the sound of the backdoor shutting means the possibility of a treat, so he goes into action.

It sounds like Sparky could have been related to Pavlov’s dog. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who, in the early 20th Century, specialized in the field of classical conditioning. Basically, he studied how animals, mainly dogs, reacted to external stimulus. He discovered that the dog’s digestive system would start reacting in response to stimuli if the dog thought they were going to get food. He studied how dogs could be conditioned over time to react to certain stimuli, like a bell or a whistle.

So Sparky is a lot like Pavlov’s dog. He has been conditioned to react a specific way to a particular action, like my shutting the back door. By the way, Sparky is not a dumb dog. Often he will just stand there looking before he comes over to our driveway, making sure that I am heading for the garage. If I start to get in the car, he’ll stop, go back and lay down. Why waste the effort if you are not going to get anything out of it.

Part of Pavlov’s research was related to how conditioning affects us human animals. Of course, I think we already know it. You smell something good cooking in the kitchen, and all of a sudden you are hungry. As a matter of fact, I can see some of the good ol’ country food that The Grateful Shed guys are cooking up on Facebook, and my mouth starts watering.

So maybe we are somewhat like Pavlov’s dog and Sparky. Maybe we have been conditioned to respond in a certain way. I thought about it recently, and how it relates to current events in our country. It seems to me that President Trump is like Ivan Pavlov, and most of the country is like Pavlov’s dog. President Trump blows the whistle, and most of us immediately go to our corners and start barking.

President Trump sends out a tweet (and yes, that still sounds silly to me) about NFL football players kneeling during the national anthem. Quickly, everyone runs to their political corners and the barking begins. MSNBC in one corner, and Fox News in the other. From one corner, the anti-Trump crowd are outraged. The NFL players must stand up, actually kneel, to this injustice. On the other hand, the pro-Trump crowd are outraged by the lack of patriotism of the players, and that this is just another sign of the decay of America. And this past weekend, President Trump sent out a tweet criticizing the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, for her handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. He blew the whistle and the barking began again.

It seems like the barking never really stops. The barking from each side is so loud that we never really hear the legitimate concerns of the other side. We can only hear the barking from our side. And with all the barking going on, it’s hard to pay attention to the real difficulties that our country faces.

Yes, it looks like we’ve been conditioned like one of Pavlov’s dogs. And I don’t like the condition we’re in.

Mac McPhail McPhail

By Mac McPhail

Contributing columnist

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at