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 response, 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?
Like 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 counterconditioning 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.
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