This is an update of a post published on December 16, 2013.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not very good at stimulus control. I’ve included in this post a great video from when Clara was younger that demonstrates that embarrassingly well.
Stimulus control in training is all about response to cues, and goes like this. Given a behavior:
- The behavior occurs immediately when the cue is given.
- The behavior never occurs in the absence of the cue.
- The behavior never occurs in response to some other cue.
- No other behavior occurs in response to this cue.
This means, for example, if I have trained the behavior, “Sit pretty,”:
- When I say, “Pretty,” the dog immediately sits up with his front feet in the air.
- He doesn’t ever do that unless I cue it.
- He doesn’t do it if I cue something else like down or sit.
- He doesn’t sit or lie down when I say, “Pretty.”
Most everybody’s first question is about #2. If this were a natural dog behavior like lying down, he would still do it at other times, right? Sure. And although I’ve seen some discussions about that, I don’t know in what situations it would be a “violation” of stimulus control for the dog to lie down without a cue from a human. The common answer is to append “in a training session” to the above rules. But how do we expect a dog to draw a line between “training session” and “not a training session”? And aren’t we training for real life? Do we say that behaviors like sit and down are never on true stimulus control? Probably.
You may choose not to reinforce downs that you don’t cue, but they are reinforcing to a dog who wants to rest and relax. We can’t help that.
For most trainers, there is a period where we are teaching cue recognition and stimulus control where we do not reinforce uncued behaviors. After that is taught, though, we may change the rules a bit in real life.
There are behaviors for which one needs strict stimulus control. 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” hitting the call box at any other time.
My dogs are not like Gigi. Or more to the point, I am not as skilled a trainer as my friend.
Lack of Stimulus Control
If you put aside Rule #2 and reinforce your dogs for uncued behaviors, you get dogs who offer behaviors frequently.
One of the stereotypes of clicker trained dogs is that they offer behaviors all the time. Dogs trained with positive reinforcement tend to do stuff. And they’ll go wild with offering stuff if their people reinforce it. But 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 behaviors, but who has also learned when that pays off and when it doesn’t.
We can set up some environmental cues and change our own behavior to let a dog know when we don’t want a bunch of offered behavior.
I do have those crazy behavior-offering dogs. If my dogs come 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.
I also reinforce offered eye contact. It usually comes along for the ride with other behaviors. Reinforcing this in real life means I have dogs who sit and stare at me.
I am OK with the results of this, but some people wouldn’t be. If you are regularly going to reinforce uncued behaviors, then you’d best be willing to do so even when it’s inconvenient. Because it’s just not fair to change the rules on your dog without warning. If you do that, you can put behaviors into extinction. This is unpleasant for the dog and doesn’t serve our overall training goals well.
My dogs are good at chilling since one of the offered behaviors I reinforce is lying down with relaxed muscles. This is nicely incompatible with trying a bunch of stuff to get my attention. I don’t mind tossing a treat around every 10 minutes while I’m working at the computer. But if we are really 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 may set up a cue for “The Bar is Closed.” There are a couple of situations in which I never reinforce my dogs and they have learned that perfectly.
In the following movie, the bar was definitely open. I was reinforcing Clara’s offered retrieves, and you can see the amusing outcome.
About the Behavior in the Movie
I’ve reinforced Clara for “trading” since she was tiny. But she started it. She always had a tendency to bring me things. I liked that, so I reinforced it. Still do. It means when she has something dangerous, I can immediately get it from her with no stress. This is a good thing since everything goes in her mouth. 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 most of the time. 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 went very well. About the worst thing that happened was that Clara snitched napkins off the table to chew up. I was careful where I put food, so she didn’t develop a counter-surfing habit. She did have certain items of my clothing—a hat in particular—that she kept a constant eye out for. But almost everything she picked up other than napkins she brought straight to me. She still does this, “busting” herself for picking up contraband.
There are good reasons to make another training choice, by the way. Some people teach a default “Leave It.” What if there is someone in your household who is prone to dropping pills or leaving sharp tools around? Then reinforcing a dog for picking random things up in her mouth and bringing them to you is not a good idea. But it has been a good choice for us, I think. You can see the rusty nail Clara brought me above. If she hadn’t, she would have been chewing on it in the yard.
By the way, the movie shows pretty impressive distance behavior. Clara was bringing items to me clear from the back of the house!
Does your dog have any behaviors on stimulus control? Or any behaviors with an embarrassing lack of stimulus control, as mine do?
Note: A knowledgeable reader pointed out what I was already feeling itchy about: the “rules” of stimulus control above are training guidelines, and not the behavior science definition. Keep in mind that behavior is never absolutely predictable, and behavior science deals in statistical likelihoods, not absolutes. I’ve linked to the American Psychological Association’s dictionary definition below. I’ll see if I can link to a non-paywalled example of the behavior science definition that is a bit more extensive. If I can’t, I’ll quote from a textbook.
- Stimulus control—American Psychological Association dictionary definition
- Stimulus Control: The Most Important Concept You’ve Never Heard Of—DogWilling
- What is Stimulus Control?—Stale Cheerios blog
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