system does not fully articulate the animal: Unruly animal behaviour in Pavlov’s labs

Activity: External talk or presentationInvited talk


This presentation pays close attention to a specific historical example of scientific animal experimentation – Ivan Pavlov’s work with dogs. Although one of the best known examples of experimental animals, the dogs themselves tend to be rendered as interchangeable, two-dimensional objects. Using scientific and historical biographies, image archives, and recent translations of Pavlov’s own writing, the author spotlights the dog’s experiences in Pavlov’s laboratory enterprise, which spanned fifty-plus years and involved thousands of animals. The focus is evidence of the dogs’ resistance to experimental predictions and protocols, and the ways in which this was managed out of official discourse in Pavlov’s time, but also in subsequent popular, educational and professional representations. An alternative analysis is presented which shifts the story away from a subject-object version of human-animal relationships, towards an understanding of the dogs as unruly and unpredictable contributors to a laboratory assemblage. It charts the ways in which the dogs were controlled and exposed to violence, but also examples of agency and unpredictability. This reframing seeks to challenge anthropocentric and androcentric readings of scientific discovery, great man narratives and docile animals; and to centre canine experience and agency within dynamic relations and a network of actors that includes technology, bodily fluids, buildings, and human co-workers on shifting historical, cultural and political tides. Finally, a summary is provided of the author’s ongoing collaborative production of an art installation depicting the human-animal relations at the heart of Pavlov’s laboratory enterprise. The outcome of an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship, this project involves the use of arts-based methods to reimagine Pavlov's labs in ways that spotlight the dogs’ experiences and agency, including their persistent unruliness, as part of a fascinating and complex assemblage.
Period5 Jan 2024
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • animals
  • psychology
  • history
  • animal history
  • animal studies
  • posthumanities
  • arts-based research