Stimulus Control, Or Lack Thereof

I mentioned in a comment last week that I’m not very good at stimulus control. Then something happened this morning that demonstrates that really, really well.

Stimulus control in training is all about response to cues, and goes like this:

  1. The behavior occurs immediately when the cue is given.
  2. The behavior never occurs in the absence of the cue.
  3. The behavior never occurs in response to some other cue.
  4. No other behavior occurs in response to this cue.
Pride, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, sitting pretty

Pride, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, sitting pretty on cue

This means, for example, if I have trained the behavior, “Sit pretty,”:

  1. When I say, “Sit pretty,” the dog immediately sits up with his front feet in the air.
  2. He doesn’t ever do that unless I cue it.
  3. He doesn’t do it if I cue something else like down or stand.
  4. He doesn’t down or stand when I say, “Sit pretty.”

Most everybody’s first question is about #2. If this were something like sit or down, of course he would do it at other times, right? Sure, with a natural behavior like that, the dog will do it frequently on his own. But he should not do it during a training session after you have started using the cue. If you completely ignore #2, you get dogs who offer behaviors all the time. And there are behaviors for which one needs strict stimulus control even during real life.

I have a friend with a service dog. “Gigi” has a special setup so she can do the equivalent of calling 911 if my friend falls down. Falling is actually the cue. My friend needs absolute stimulus control on this behavior, because it is completely not cool if Gigi “offers” calling 911 at any other time.

My dogs are not like Gigi.

Lack of Stimulus Control

Three dogs bored

Even a gate doesn’t stop them from offering eye contact

One of the stereotypes of clicker trained dogs is that they offer behaviors all the time. Sometimes it’s just that people are not used to dogs who have not been taught to be “seen and not heard.” But it’s true that dogs trained with positive reinforcement go wild with offering stuff if their people reinforce it. However, it doesn’t have to be that way all the time. You can have a dog who is a virtuoso shaper and completely unafraid to offer, but who also knows when you want that and when you don’t.

Teaching stimulus control and having some clear cues regarding training let a dog know when it is appropriate to offer behaviors and when not to.

But I do have those crazy clicker dogs, because I reinforce lots of offered behaviors. If my dogs comes running up to me in the yard for no reason to check in–I like that! They’ll usually get something from me. If I walk through a room and someone is lying nicely on a mat, they’ll get a treat.

Many people do that, but I take it to farther extremes. I will reinforce stuff while I’m watching TV, or even (gasp!) while I am writing. I reinforce offered eye contact (it usually comes along for the ride with other behaviors). What this means is essentially I am reinforcing my dogs for interrupting me and staring at me.

I am OK with the ramifications of this, but some people wouldn’t be.   If you are going to reinforce uncued behaviors, then you had better be ready to do so even when it’s inconvenient. Because it’s just not fair to change the rules on your dog without warning. That’s why there are cues, after all. To let the animal know what behavior pays off right now.

Truly, my dogs are good at chilling, since one of the offered behaviors I reinforce is relaxation. I don’t mind tossing a treat around every 10 minutes while I’m working at the computer. But if we are truly out of sync and they are tuning up to bug me to death, I just use management. I get behind a gate.

One of these days I’ll probably set up a cue for “The Bar is Closed.” I do have a couple of times that I consistently do not reinforce my dogs (while I eat is the main one). Although in the case of my eating they all unlearned it a little bit when Clara was a puppy. I broke down and reinforced a couple of times when she did something spectacular while I was eating, and every one of them took note.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

About the Behavior in the Movie

I have reinforced Clara for “trading” since she was tiny. But she also has just always had a tendency to bring me things. I like that, so I reinforce it. It means I can immediately get it when she has something dangerous. She is a very oral dog; everything goes in her mouth and she was an outrageous chewer when younger, so I managed very tightly about this then.

When Cricket was alive, Clara was limited to only half the house except under complete supervision. Clara was just under 2 years old when Cricket died in May 2013, and it seemed appropriate to open things up a bit after that. It has gone very well. About the worst thing that happens is that she snitches a napkin off the table from time to time to chew up. She hasn’t countersurfed food, thank goodness. I’m pretty careful where I put it.  She does have certain items of my clothing–a hat in particular–that she keeps a constant eye out for. But almost everything besides napkins she brings straight to me.

So many things are tradeoffs. I will rarely have a problem of her getting something and refusing to give it up. But I have to accept that when she gets bored or hungry (the above movie was taken before I had given the dogs their breakfast, and I think that was no coincidence) she will start searching the house for stuff to bring me, expecting her usual treats.

The good side of all this is that her distance retrieve may be a snap to teach. She is bringing those items to me clear from the back of the house!

Working on Stimulus Control

I have actually worked on cue response and stimulus control a fair amount in the context of training sessions. It is a tricky thing to work on without hurting your dog’s feelings, especially at first. The world turns upside down the first few times that you stop reinforcing offered behaviors while training. But all my dogs have gotten over the hump in training sessions. I’ll go over techniques for getting behaviors on stimulus control and share some video about that in a future post.

Meanwhile, here are some links for a bit more information if you are interested.

Related Post

What’s an Antecedent Arrangement?

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  1. I remember the day I taught my husky how to turn on/off a light switch … Super fun and totally useful until he’d start offering up this turning lights on behavior … Imagine 4 am with a pup that is bored and decides to flip the lights on so he’ll get a treat… Or cooking dinner and suddenly its all dark .. we’ve now officially started the stimulus control for this cue .. and although he’s not 100% there yet, I find myself a lot less standing in the dark overa hot pan or being woken up to bright lights lol

    Great post per usual Eileen !!!

  2. Loved watching Clara bring you things to trade for treats. I’ve seen lots of dogs who offer a paw to shake every time they are cued to sit. I tell my students to clearly separate it from the sit cue. The same thing happens with down and rollover sometimes. I suggest clicking and treating the down before they start to rollover; then release and then ask for rollover and click and treat that. In other words do not reward it unless you asked for it. I’m looking forward to learning more about getting behaviors on stimulus control!

    • Thanks, Linda! Yes, my friend Marge was mentioning the whole “shake” thing can really go the wrong way. I taught my little terrier a paw lift and it stuck onto her sit for almost the entire rest of her life. Those are good suggestions from you about keeping the behaviors separate.

  3. I like your comment that you are OK with the ramifications of your dogs offering you all these behaviours and the acknowledgement that others may not be. We are all so different, and what is a problem to one person may not be a worry to another. I feel very similar to you – I can’t help but spontaneously reinforce some behaviour that has been offered that I think is really neat. Do you go over WHEN (in the process of teaching a behaviour) is the optimum time to put something under stimulus control in the next blog?

    • Thank you, Sonya. I really hadn’t been thinking about when, I guess since I am always way too late. I know that better and more efficient trainers than I am raise criteria and apply cues way faster and sooner than I do. I don’t mean they rush. I seem to dwell on intermediate steps way too long. So I may not be the best one on the topic of “when.” But I promise to put some thought and research into it.

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