Stimulus Control, Or Lack Thereof

 

retrieving items over and over indicates lack of stimulus control

What happens when you don’t have retrieve on stimulus control?

This post was updated and republished on January 31, 2019.

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 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 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

Three dogs bored

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

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.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

About the Behavior in the Movie

Clara brought me this rusty nail

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 do the opposite, 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 good stimulus control? Or any behaviors with an embarrassing lack of stimulus control, as mine do?

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Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson
Updated 2018

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About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. Eileen Anderson on Google+
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11 Responses to Stimulus Control, Or Lack Thereof

  1. Ashley says:

    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. Clara is so cute! Love this video and post! This is something I struggle with. I think stimulus control is what takes the most time and is most difficult! Thanks! 🙂

  4. Sonya B says:

    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.

  5. Dianne Gilleece says:

    “My dogs are not like Gigi.” 😀

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