Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?

retrieving items over and over indicates lack of stimulus control
What happens when you don’t have retrieve on stimulus control?

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:

  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, “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 sit.
  4. 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. But years later, I did manage to put “getting up in the morning” on stimulus control for a dog who came to me getting up regularly at 5:30 AM! I taught him a new cue for getting up.

Lack of Stimulus Control

Three dogs bored
Even a gate didn’t stop them from offering eye contact

If you 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 reinforce recalls so richly and so thoroughly that all I often need to do is appear on the scene and the dogs will come running.

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 un-cued 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 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 and a good blog post.

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Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson
Updated 2018

8 thoughts on “Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?

    1. Actually, I republished this article mostly as an excuse to get people to look at the video!

  1. That was so cute! I loved the expression on Clara’s face when she brought you each “offering’!

    My most amusing “lack of stimulus control” story is the one time I tried to teach my dogs to sneeze on command by capturing the behavior. I was very successful at capturing the behavior, and soon had a line of dogs following me around the house, sneezing lustily! Since I’d captured the behavior, and sometimes they did sneeze and I didn’t reinforce it, the behavior was extremely resistant to extinction. They *would* sneeze on command, but would also offer a sneeze whenever they thought I had something that I could “pay” them with…. Snot everywhere!
    I used that story as a cautionary tale whenever I was telling my students about stimulus control.

    1. You win the Internet today! Best. Story. Ever!
      Thanks so much for telling us about it!

  2. I love that video….so funny. I can’t compete with the excellent sneezing story, but my dog has several tricks on stimulus control and a few that aren’t. The non-stim control behaviors are the easy ones or ones she likes to do–head tilt, tail wag, down, or paw targeting. She rarely (or maybe never) offers crossed paws or backing up without a cue, as these aren’t her favorites. And I also reward the heck out of eye contact on a walk, so there’s no stim control for that.

    1. Those are good ones for no stim control. Yeah, head tilt. We got lots of head tilt….. My favorite behaviors are the ones where you don’t really need it.

      My dog Summer who passed away in 2017 had a default backup that was so sweet. When she wanted something, she’d come up to me, fix me with her eyes, then back up. The opposite of pushy, but very effective.

      Thanks for the comment, Joyce!

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