My Dogs Get to Sit


Do words Matter?

Is what we call something really important?  Does it really matter if we call it a command or a cue, obedience or compliance?  What are the fundamental differences?  In class, I often tell my students that my dogs don’t have to sit, they get to sit.

So what does that mean? 

Webster’s Dictionary defines command as “to direct authoritatively or order.”  And when you look at people who give their dogs commands, that really is what they are doing, issuing an order. There is an element of “do this or else” to a command; the threat of an unpleasant consequence for disobedience. The dog must obey.cue_sit_scared

Trainers who teach dogs commands usually rely on avoidance. The dog “obeys his commands”  to avoid an unpleasant consequence, like a leash pop, a poke, or even a dirty look. The dog is working to avoid something unpleasant. That unpleasant consequence can, in the dog’s mind, become associated with the command, the person issuing it, or the location it is being issued. The command itself can become a scary or bad thing.

A cue, on the other hand, is defined as a signal to a performer to begin a specific speech or action. That is all it is, a prompt or a signal that your dog recognizes and associates with the behavior.

Does the Dog Care?

A further linguistic difference is the response from the dog. A dog who receives a command must obey; a dog that understands a cue will comply, or conform, to a request. Why would a dog choose to conform without the threat of unpleasant consequences? Because the consequence of compliance is access to something the dog wants.  Rather than learning that disobedience makes bad things happen so it is better to toe the line, dogs learn that compliance and cooperation make wonderful things happen.

get to sitWhen we reward dogs for compliance, we create positive association with the action and with us. Sit is no longer an action the dog has to take to avoid something unpleasant. It becomes something the dog enjoys doing because it makes good things happen. The cue becomes a happy thing. As we continue to work with our dogs, we become associated with those good things. Our dogs begin to enjoy working with us as a team and the relationship grows.

The biggest difference in the words is the way we view our dogs and the way they view us. I prefer my dogs work with me rather than for me. They don’t have to sit, they get to sit.

But my Dog is not Food Motivated




I train with food. There, I said it. I don’t expect my dogs to work for me for just praise or affection or because they respect me. I get paid for my work. I pay my dogs for their work. I pay them with food.

What is a Primary Reinforcer?

A primary reinforcer is one that satisfies a biological need. They are necessary for the survival of an individual and continuation of a species, such as food, water, air, shelter and sex. Of all the primary reinforcers, food is the safest to deliver or withhold for training and the easiest to use. If you are using small, easily eaten, high value treats, food minimally interrupts the flow of behaviors which allows more repetitions of a behavior in the same timeframe.

One of the biggest objections to using food to train that I hear is “My dog is not food motivated”. Provided the dog in question is healthy, that is unlikely. Food is a primary reinforce. Dogs need to eat to survive. If they don’t eat, they will die. So dogs are food motivated.

So Why Would My Dog rather Chase a Ball?

When my 14 year old Pomeranian was younger, she loved to play fetch. My arm was often sore from throwing long before she was done playing. It was her favorite game.

One night, while we were grilling on the back porch, we gave all the dogs a piece of hamburger. I watched as Angel took her piece down to the bottom of the yard, buried it for later, and then immediately brought back the ball for us to throw.

Confusing, isn’t it? My dog preferred playing fetch to eating. Does that mean that for Angel, fetch is a primary reinforce? No, it does not. It simply means that at that time, Angel preferred playing fetch to eating. Playing fetch may have been a more rewarding activity, but she did not need to do it to live. She just liked to do it. A lot.

There are many reasons a dog might not eat at a given time. Like Angel, the dog may prefer a different activity. The dog could be too excited, scared or stressed to eat. The dog may not be hungry. The dog may not want the food being offered. The food may not be equal to the distraction level. Most of these obstacles can be overcome by setting up appropriate training sessions.

Why do I use food to train?

There are many reasons to use food to train. Unlike the other primary reinforcers, I can delay feeding for a short time and use the food in a training session. Using small, soft, easily eaten treats allows me to train quickly. I can increase or decrease the value of the treat to match the distraction level of the training session. And, since all dogs do eat, I can use meals to train.

I train with food. Why wouldn’t I?

Why do –CER’s make us feel so badly?


We have all had those moments. I know I have. We sit waiting at a red light at an intersection where we had an accident or a teacher in school says “Take out a blank sheet of paper and put your books on the floor” or our boss sends us an email that states “We need to talk” without any further details. Suddenly, we feel horrible. Our heart is pounding, our blood is racing, we feel a shortness of breath and our stomachs churn. We are nervous, scared, upset or anxious. Nothing bad has happened yet, but our bodies react as if it has.

We are having a response to a cue that something bad is about to happen. Nothing bad has happened. Maybe nothing bad is going to happen. Maybe we drive through the intersection safe and sound. Maybe the teacher is asking us to clear our desks for an in-school celebration. Maybe the boss wants to offer a promotion. It does not matter, our bodies have already reacted to the cue that something bad is about to happen.

+CER’s make us feel good, but there is another type of Conditioned Emotional Response. It is a Negative Conditioned Emotional Response, or –CER.

What is a -CER

The way we learn CER’s, positive or negative, is similar to the way we learn any other emotional 10556517_10204108588662335_8959612893452856633_nresponse, something happens just before a significant event and we make a correlation or connection on a neural level.

Like +CER’s, -CER’s are conditioned emotional responses to a stimulus. They are learned associations that we make with unpleasant things. They are classically conditioned responses; we don’t think about them, we just respond emotionally. The unpleasant thing does not even have to happen to trigger the feelings.

Unlike +CER’s, -CER’s do not make us feel good. When we form –CER’s, we associate a stimulus or trigger with something unpleasant. Think about how you would feel sitting at the light, clearing off your desk or waiting for the meeting with your boss. That is a –CER.

What does that mean to our dogs?

stressedLike people, dogs can have unpleasant emotional reactions to a stimulus that has been associated with something unpleasant. A balloon pops, the noise scares the dog and now the mere presence of a balloon causes the dog to react with fear. The dog is ill or injured and has to make several vet trips that involve pain and fear. The dog learns the vet’s office is a scary place.

While these are emotional responses and do not involve behavior, they can drive behavior. The dog may try to escape or avoid whatever triggered the emotional response just as we may try to avoid or escape the trigger for an accident, a test or a reprimand from our boss. The dog may feel the need to defend himself and could aggress. The dog could freeze in fear. A –CER that is irrational can be extremely stressful for a dog.

What can we do to change the emotional response?

We can alter the negative emotional response to a stimulus or trigger by using counterconditioningHappy and desensitization. The CARE for Reactive Dog website defines counterconditioning as “the replacement of an undesirable or maladaptive response to a stimulus with a more desirable response, by means of conditioning procedures”. We condition, or teach, the dog to feel a more positive response to the original trigger. Systematic desensitization is defined as “a technique… in which the subject is kept below threshold and exposed to fears in an increasing hierarchy of intensity”. By associating the trigger for the –CER with something the dog enjoys, like food, we can change a –CER into a +CER. CC&D is a very powerful tool that can help make the world a less scary, more comfortable place for a dog.

Related Posts, blogs and article:

What is a +CER and why do I care?

Thresholds in Dog Training…HOW many?


What is a +CER and Why do I care?


Sometimes the dog training lingo can be a little overwhelming. As in many fields, the professionals seem to have their own language that is not easily or readily understood by the public at large. Dog trainers are no different. To make it worse, we use acronyms to avoid spelling out those long words. I am as guilty as any other dog training professional of writing OC in place of Operant Conditioning or CC&D for Counter Conditioning and Desensitization.

An acronym that has been coming up a lot recently is +CER. To a pet dog owner, that could mean anything from “Add Correct Energy Reaction” to “Increase Carrots, Eggs and Radishes”.

So what exactly IS a +CER?

A CER is a conditioned emotional response. It is a learned, emotional reaction. It is a subset of classical conditioning because the subject makes a reflexive association with the trigger. There is no behavior involved. Think Pavlov’s dogs. Bell rings, dogs salivate. The bell has become the predictor of food. That is classical conditioning. And the dogs probably experienced an emotional reaction to the sound of the bell, which would make it a CER.

I will take it a step further and guess that the response the dogs had to the sound of the bell was a pleasant response as it predicted something they enjoyed, food. That means it is a +CER.

We hear a song on the radio and suddenly we are at the beach in our senior year, hanging out with our friends in the sun. That is a + CER (unless you hate the beach). Or we smell turkey and we re-experience a long ago Christmas with loved ones. One of my strongest +CER’s is to a perfume. I wore it for the first time in Jamaica and every time I smell it, I am back in Jamaica in my mind. I can almost feel the tile under my feet and the warm breeze from the balcony and I suddenly feel very calm. THAT is a +CER. It is a stimulus (to use the technical word) that triggers a positive emotional response due to its association with something pleasant.

Why do I care?


Scott classically conditioning a +CER with Duncan

Scott classically conditioning a +CER with Duncan

Over the summer, my dog, Duncan, was in a play. The director wanted Duncan to follow Scott, the actor playing his owner, with total adoration in Duncan’s eyes, no matter what. The problem was that there were times when the script called for Scott to speak to Duncan quite harshly, at times, even threateningly. This could be quite intimidating for a small dog, so we decided to create positive emotional responses to both Scott and the harsh words and threatening gestures. We set about feeding Duncan while gradually increasing the intensity of the tone and gestures. During the time that the intimidating parts of the script were being rehearsed, food flowed freely. When they were over, the food stopped. It did not take long till Scott’s loud words and assertive movements produced the desired response, loving looks from Duncan. In Scott’s words, “It all became a meatball”.  Duncan not only did not mind Scott berating him on stage, he enjoyed it.

The Finished Product

The Finished Product

The most important reason we should care is the emotional well being of our dogs. Being distressed by things that should not cause a stressful response is…well…stressful. If my dog is terrified of the sound the dishwasher makes, he is going to have a fearful reaction every time it runs. That cannot be a pleasant feeling. The reduction in anxiety or distress is reason enough to consider creating a +CER.

Emotions often drive behavior and a dog may act out behaviorally based on how they feel about a trigger. And even though the emotion driving the response may not make sense to us, it is very real to the dog. He may bark when the dishwasher begins to make a scary noise, he may try to run, hide or avoid the noise from the dish washer, and, in a worst case scenario, he could experience a fight or flight response and become aggressive. He may even learn to associate the loading of the dishwasher with the scary noise.  Meal time and clean up could become quite stressful for a dog that experienced this every day.

Although classical conditioning is related to reflexive, internal and/or emotional responses rather than behavioral responses, the way we (or our dogs) feel about something can affect the way we react. If I use counter conditioning to associate the dish washer with something good (like food), I can create the dish washer as a +CER and, in normal, physically healthy dogs, altering the CER changes behavior. The dog no longer has a reason to react to the scary noise the dishwasher makes because, in his mind, it equals something pleasant.

“CARE for Reactive Dogs has excellent advice for creating a +CER here:

Knowing how to create a +CER is a useful tool for any owners tool bag. It does not matter if we own a puppy, an adult or a senior dog, they all can benefit from making positive associations with things that should not be scary.