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You may have heard of the “placebo effect.” This is a phenomenon that happens when people take harmless or inactive substances, like sugar pills, with the belief that they are medicine, and then their body reacts as if they had taken an actual drug.

The scoop on placebo
It’s most used in clinical trials of new medications, typically with half the people getting the test drug and half getting placebos. Ideally, neither the patients nor the doctors running the trial know which is which until researchers look at the data after the fact.

The whole point of this is to set a baseline to determine whether a new drug works. For example, if they’re testing a drug to clear up acne, if 20% of people taking a placebo show improvement in their skin condition, then the new drug has to show a much better than 20% success rate.

How the placebo effect works
Nobody knows yet how or why the placebo effect works. Human expectation seems to play a part in it. People believe they are getting medicine, so something happens to heal their body. This seems borne out by another detail — the more expensive the placebo is, the better it works, which is what researchers discovered in a study at MIT. So it all seems to be mind-over-matter, but there are two exceptions.

First, one study sponsored by the Harvard University Faculty of Medicine seemed to show that the placebo effect works even in cases where doctors explain specifically to patients that what they’re getting contains no medicine at all.

Second, and more surprisingly, the placebo effect works on dogs.

If it’s all about the effect of the mind on the body, then what’s going on when a dog, which doesn’t understand what medicine is or the difference between a prescription and a placebo, shows a medical effect from being given an inert sugar pill?

The answer is conditioning.

How dogs responded
The study was done to determine whether the placebo effect could treat separation anxiety but, unlike with humans, the researchers began by giving dogs a mild sedative before their owners left. Once this showed an effect of calming the dogs down, they switched over to a placebo — and the dogs calmed down just as if they’d been given the sedative.

Now a dog obviously does not realize someone is giving them a pill to make them calm down before their owners leave and then going through the intellectual process of, “That made me feel better,” so their minds take over to calm their bodies down. It’s an entirely instinctual process. By creating a ritual with the real medicine that had the specific result of calming the dog down, the researchers were then able to remove the medicine while still seeing the effect.

This is another example of Pavlovian conditioning in action. To the dog, “getting a pill in the morning” always resulted in calming down, so that the action itself became the cue for the behavior.

Instinct vs intellect
This may also be a clue as to why the placebo effect works in humans — it isn’t working for us on an intellectual level, either. Rather, it’s working on our instincts after our intellects have been engaged. Our minds say to us, “This is medicine, it must work,” and then our bodies take over to present the desired effect — whether we’ve actually taken any medication or not.

Of course, there’s one other aspect of the placebo effect in dogs that the researchers didn’t take into account: human expectation. Just as a dog is conditioned to calm down after the ritual of taking a pill, perhaps our expectations affect our energy. Remember, our dogs read our energy, so that if the human believes the medication will work, the dog picks up on that as well.

The human thinking that the pill will work may reduce their anxiety about their dog’s anxiety, and so not feed into it prior to leaving the dog alone. It’s yet another example of “expectations equal outcome,” which is a very powerful tool in helping to find balance with our dogs.

Does your dog give you a hard time to take her meds? Tell us in the comments how you deal with the situation.

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