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What Is a Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) in Dogs?

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Conditioned emotional responses can involve fear and joyful emotions.

Conditioned emotional responses can involve fear and joyful emotions.

What Is CER? How Does It Affect Your Dog?

You may have never heard of the term "Conditioned Emotional Response," often abbreviated as CER, but most likely you have witnessed this phenomena if you own a dog.

If every time you grab the leash, your dog pricks his ears, and comes running excitedly in anticipation for a walk, he has developed a CER, but let's take a closer look into this and how it unfolds from a scientific perspective.

Just like humans, animals come biologically equipped with a mechanism crafted to allow them to perceive pleasure and pain which elicits emotional responses. In humans, the noise of a drill may cause you to get goose bumps if you had a negative experience at the dentist, or the sound of the phone ringing may cause your heart to race if you associate it with the voice of a loved one.

These emotional responses take place quickly and reflexively, without much rational thinking involved.

In dogs, similar responses take place. Your dog's eyes may brighten when he hears the click of a clicker as he has learned to associate its noise with treats, or your dog may come to dread the beeping noise that alerts him that if he walks ahead he will receive shock for crossing the boundary of an electronic fence.

According to James O' Heare pleasure-related responses (appetitive) motivate approach and contact, whereas fear-related responses (aversive) motivate escape and avoidance. From an evolutionary perspective this all makes sense as for survival purposes we should seek life-sustaining reinforcers, and we should avoid the life-threatening scenarios.

Conditioned emotional responses where studied for quite some time many years ago. In 1920, John B. Watson and his assistant Rosalie Rayner conducted experiments on fear conditioning.

The most famous cases study involved little Albert, an almost 9-month old baby. The baby was exposed to a rat to which the baby responded neutrally, without fear. After some time, every time the baby interacted with the rat, a loud sound behind Albert's back was made by striking a steel bar with a hammer.

After several pairings of the rat and the sound, Little Albert became distressed just by looking at the rat, even when no sound was made. He therefore developed a conditioned emotional response of crying at just the mere sight of the rat.

In this article, we will be focusing on conditioned emotional responses in dogs with an emphasis on responses with positive emotions as the outcome.

This bright, happy expression is often seen in dogs who are clicker trained.

This bright, happy expression is often seen in dogs who are clicker trained.

How to Elicit a +CER in Your Dog

So how do we elicit a positive conditioned emotional response? In the video below, we can see how Jean Donaldson, creates a CER to a Gentle Leader, a stimulus that may have been neutral or have had negative connotations through past experience.

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If you want to see the development of a positive CER in action, remember that the stimulus must be always followed by the food (or some other type of reinforcer), as the stimulus must become a predictor of good things.

In order to work, the stimulus must be presented in way that doesn't frighten. Trial after trial, you should see a joyful response take place.

If you clicker train your dog, you might recognize this joyful expression. I often see it when I am working on the "look at that" method, where a dog gets treats for looking at a stimulus that was previously feared or disliked. I like to call it this joyful expression the "LAT look."

The Making of a Conditioned Emotional Response

Associative learning (classical conditioning) is at the heart of conditioned emotional responses. It is through associations that a dog learns that a leash means a walk, that a clicker means a treat and that a white coat equals food in the case of Pavlov's dogs.

It is also through associations that a dog learns that a skunk may mean the release of a terrible stench that burns eyes.

When a conditioned emotional response takes place, the brain, nervous system and endocrine system are all involved.

Neuronal activity: In the brain, several electrical and chemical transmissions occur through neurons and it is these transmissions that affect how the dog learns, memorizes, experiences emotions and ultimately behaves. Because neurons form such connections, dogs can recall past experiences and can respond (without cognitive involvement) in a reflex-like matter that has proven beneficial in the past.

Amygdala activity: The amygdala plays an active role when it comes to processing memory and emotional reactions. Also known as the "smoke detector of the brain", the amygdala is responsible for triggering the adrenal cortex into releasing hormones (cortisol, adrenaline) that prepare for the fight and flight response-- that physical responsiveness so important for survival.

It can be said that the dog's brain acts in a "hardwired" reflex-like way in response to each specific experience based on prior learning by association. This explains why not much success in changing behavior is attained through traditional training methods. We are working more at an emotional level than a cognitive one.

Instead, behavior modification works for the simple fact that through counterconditioning we are changing emotions, and therefore, one conditioned response is replaced by another conditioned response to the same conditioned stimulus (Corey, 1971, p.127). The positive emotional response ultimately conflicts with fear.

At a neuronal level, during counterconditioning, neurons are reconnected in a way that the plasticity of the nervous system improves. When a conditioned emotional response takes place, we are basically altering previous connections between neurons and shifting a fear response into a joyful, pleasurable response.


  • Barks from the Guild --Where do Conditioned Emotional Responses Originate, and How Can We Alter the Resulting Behavior? Taking a New Look at Old Methodology
  • Emotional Freedom Techniques: The Neurochemistry of Counterconditioning: Acupressure Desensitization in Psychotherapy

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli

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