The Conditioned Emotional Response

Forging favorable correlations between emotion and work.

Let's first define a few concepts:

Classical Conditioning, Emotional Response, and Conditioned Emotional Response

classical conditioning

Dogs are constantly processing information, consciously and subconsciously.  Most of our training that we do with our dogs is done through operant conditioning - showing them pictures, prompting behaviors, and reinforcing or punishing the performed behavior.  The dog learns that each particular behavior has a consequence, and that consequence will dictate its behavior in the future.  This is training through the dog's consciousness- the dog learns that its choices have consequences.

While we're doing this, we are also subjecting ourselves and our dogs to the laws that govern classical conditioning - relating a neutral stimulus to a unconditioned stimulus enough times creates a subconscious conditioned response from the dog to the previously neutral stimulus.  The responses a dog has to a classically conditioned stimulus are NOT a choice on the dog's part.  

Below are some examples of the most commonly referred to experiments in classical conditioning, Pavlov's Dogs:

Ivan Pavlov's experiments in conditioning.

Emotional response

An emotional response to a stimulus is the way the dog feels when presented with it.

Some general examples:

  • Food = happy 
  • Owner leaves = sad
  • Vet's office = scared

While there's no way to sit a dog down on a psychologist's couch and ask them how a certain event made them "feel", we can view external behaviors the dog exhibits when presented with a given stimulus and evaluate, based on the science of canine body language, whether the dog is anticipating something good or something bad happening from that experience. 

The anticipation of something good can be translated to the human emotions of happy and excited.

The anticipation of something bad happening can be translated to the human emotions of fear and sadness. 

Current empirical evidence related to Canine PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) further indicates that dogs can and do have long-lasting emotional responses to previously neutral stimuli.  

This brings us to...


"Conditioned" - the dog has been classically conditioned.  "Emotional response" - the internal or external reaction when presented with a given stimulus or environment. 

A Conditioned Emotional Response is the feeling a dog has about a specific stimulus or environment.  

CERs are formed either through the owner's conscious attempt to generate or manipulate them, or completely independent of conscious effort.  CERs are happening during every training session, purposefully or not.  

Examples of unanticipated CERs:

  1. A dog is taken to the park.  Every time the dog goes to the park, it gets to play fetch.  The dog loves fetch, and every time it goes to the park, it gets excited in anticipation of playing fetch- it starts whining in the car to get out, its teeth chatter, it may even shake with excitement.  After a few months, the owner chooses to train obedience in the same park.  Instead of performing its behaviors correctly, the dog is shaking, chattering, and bouncing with excitement.  It is anticipating playing fetch.  Because of this, it has difficulty maintaining its stays, forges in its heeling, and barks through position changes.  The dog brought its conditioned extreme level of excitement about the park into its obedience behaviors.  The owner must understand that the dog's poor performance is due to its Conditioned Emotional Response to the environment, not due to disobedience of commands.
  2. A dog gets in the car.  It's destination?  The vet's office (which in this example we presume the dog finds to find scary).  Some time later, the dog gets in the car.  It's destination?  The vet's office.  And the next time?  You guessed it- the vet's office.  The dog is only put in the car when it is traveling to the vet.  What begins to happen?  The dog begins to anticipate the emotional response it feels at the vet (fear) when it gets in the car.  This causes the dog to refuse to get in the car, and/or pant/whine/bark/panic during the drive.  The dog is now classically conditioned to feel the same way about the car that it felt about the vet's office.
  3. A dog is trapped in a burning building and is rescued by firefighters.  A few weeks later, its owners notice that every time a fire engine blazes by, the dog begins pacing, circling, and panting.  As time goes on, the frantic behavior remains.  The dog associated the fire engine's siren with the fear it felt during the fire.  The dog was classically conditioned to feel the same way about the siren that it did during the fire.

Manipulating the Conditioned Emotional Response

CERs can also be intentionally manipulated for the benefit of the dog.  

In cases of behavior modification, the handler can classically condition the dog to perceive a certain stimulus differently than it had before.  Referring back to Example 3, the dog could become unconditioned to fear the sirens by reconditioning the dog to associate the noise with something more pleasant, like food. 

The longer neutral stimulus x is associated with unconditioned stimulus y, the stronger the dog's conditioning to stimulus x will be.  To use the example, the longer sirens are associated with food, the stronger the dog will be conditioned to hear sirens and feel the same way about them as they feel about food (sirens = food). 

The inverse of this is true as well.  The longer neutral stimulus x is DISASSOCIATED with unconditioned stimulus y, the weaker the conditioning to stimulus x will be.  In the same example, the longer the dog hears sirens without something frightening happening to it, the weaker the conditioning will be to hear sirens and feel the same way about them as they feel about almost dying (sirens ≠ death). 

We have to remember that fearful and painful events are remembered longer and are more salient to the dog than anything positive or rewarding.  Why?  Survival.  If you stepped into the road and were bumped by a car, for a very long time, you would be cautious about stepping into the road again, and for good reason.  You have been conditioned to be slightly afraid- in human psychology, cautious- of roads, and you will now look both ways before crossing the street. 

It only takes one instance for a previously neutral stimulus to be viewed with fear for a very long time.  In the above examples, of lifetime of hearing sirens without consequence had no bearing on the one incident that sparked the fearful conditioning to the noise.

On the other hand, when we think about our positive reinforcement markers ('yes', 'good', *click*, etc.), we have to "load" those to get to a point where the dog is conditioned to them.  When we "load" a positive reinforcement marker, we pair the marker with food hundreds of times. *Click* - Treat, *Click* - Treat, *Click* - Treat, etc. etc. etc. until the dog begins to salivate at the sound of the click the same as it would to the presence of a treat.  

Compare the number of repetitions necessary for a stimulus to become fearfully classically conditioned (1) to the number of repetitions necessary for a stimulus to become positively classically conditioned (100s). 

It takes longer for a dog to disassociate from a fearful stimulus than from a positive one. 

the Conditioned Emotional Response and The Sporting dog

We can correctly utilize the CERs in our sporting dogs by developing a positively conditioned emotional response to work itself.  We do this by providing the dog the time and skills it needs to learn through engagement and positive reinforcement such that, when we eventually place boundaries on the dog to comply within certain parameters, the dog is happy to comply and does not shut down.  The dog learns that working, itself, is fun, and will accept new tasks and challenges happily and willingly.

In the aforementioned Example 1- the dog that loves fetch- we see a commonly-used purposeful CER to an environment.  While it may take some time (see our post about capping), that dog is more likely to perform those obedience behaviors in that environment with energy and enthusiasm than anywhere else because of the conditioned emotional response it has to the environment.

Inversely, these same effects are true of fear or anxiety-producing conditioned emotional responses.  For a dog that was worked under too much pressure or through utilization of inappropriate motivational tools, the conditioned emotional response could be detrimental to the dog's performance.  Not only do fear or anxiety-producing CERs related to sporting cause detriment to the dog's performance in a given sport, they can also cause detriment to the dog's willingness to perform in ANY sport. 

Depending on many factors, including genetics and socialization, a dog may become avoidant to all work if its conditioned emotional response to work itself is fear, pain, or pressured.

Dogs that have been "shut down"- have developed a negative conditioned emotional response- in one sport may carry that CER to other sports.  An unwillingness to work for a given handler, or in a given environment, may develop regardless of the task asked of the dog.  

In extreme cases, a dog may become avoidant to performing any task, regardless of handler, environment, or sport, due to extreme duress experienced during training or competition.  This extreme response comes from multiple incidences of feeling fear or too much pressure.  As mentioned earlier, negative CERs are longer lasting and more salient, thus, can more thoroughly inundate the dog's general emotional responses to similar stimuli. 

Always remember that tHE DOG will carry its EMOTIONAL STATE THROUGHout the performance of its behaviors.

Promoting positive conditioned emotional responses

How do we specifically utilize CERs to propagate excited, willing behavior through our work?

  1. We allow the dog the choice to work.  We do not bribe, coax, or trick the dog into performing a behavior or a sport.  Willing participation is the first step to true teamwork. 
  2. We provide the dog with guidance and support through the learning process.  While we set boundaries to prevent inappropriate behavior, the majority of the learning experience is done through reward-based methods.
  3. The rate of reinforcement remains high as the difficulty of the tasks increases.  During the generalization process, we lower our criteria appropriately to promote success.  If necessary, we reward for effort.
  4. The dog is pushed at its own pace when it determines it is ready.  We don't put our dogs on a calendar timeline.  Pushing a dog into 'learning' when it is not ready promotes stress and negative CERs.
  5. We promote excited, over-the-top responses to working when offered.  We balance the drive to work with the necessity of capping.  We prefer to cap excitable energy than bring out drive and confidence from a diminished dog.
  6. We make the reward an event, such that positive reinforcement markers become extremely valuable, even more so than the singular primary reinforcer.
  7. Sessions end on high notes and with the dog wanting more.  By doing this, the dog comes into the next training session feeling as charged and driven to perform as it did leaving the last one.

By following these principles, dogs learn that learning and working is as rewarding as the reward itself.  The training environment becomes a place of fun, excitement, and teamwork.  The field, ring, or lanes are places where success happens.  

The dog finds inherent value in the work.

Want to learn more about how to tailor these principles to your dog's individual needs?  

Does your dog need help coming out its shell?

Do you want to see more drive and intensity in your work?