Tag: clicker training

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

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:

Continue reading “Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?”
Dog Training Basics: Getting the Behavior

Dog Training Basics: Getting the Behavior

Tan puppy with black muzzle is lying on a navy blue bath mat and looks seriousI think one of the hardest steps for people who cross over to positive reinforcement based training is learning how to get a dog to start performing a behavior.

If we have experience with mild force-based methods, such as verbally telling the dog to sit, then pushing his butt down, or even if we have done lots of luring, it’s hard to imagine how to explain to a dog what we want them to do without taking one of those actions. It’s even harder to believe that he will do it repeatedly without a lot of chatter on our parts.

Getting a dog to do something over and over without saying a word, which can be quite easy once you know how, is very hard to explain to someone who has never done it or seen it. I have seen countless questions about it on Yahoo groups and FaceBook, and even after it is described to questioners, the videos that they subsequently post usually show them struggling to understand the concept. They speak verbal cues long before the dog understands the connection of the cue and the behavior, then wait impatiently for the stunned dog to do something.  Then they go through all sorts of gyrations to get the dog to do stuff. They also frequently startle their dog, are too loud, use pressure-ful body language, and do other things that cause the dog to not have a good time.

I feel OK pointing this out because I have done all of the above. Some of them you will see in the videos below.

I recently ran across this series of videos I posted when Clara was a puppy that document the first 5 sessions of teaching her “down” and thought they might be helpful to people who are not familiar with the process of getting behavior.

It’s not exemplary training, but that’s one of the points of my blog. The process is robust, and dogs are very forgiving. I do show my mistakes, and hopefully how I solve the problems I create. One of the four videos shows a miserable failure of a training session, but it’s a good lesson and also pretty funny. Clara is a little stressy in some other sessions. But I do a few things right, too, and they might be helpful as well.

The two things that I believe the videos demonstrate fairly well are a way to “get the behavior,” i.e. get a dog started on and repeating a behavior, and how to start adding a verbal cue.

Getting Started

My go-to method for getting and training basic behaviors from a dog I live with is capturing. It helps built great habits for me, since it makes me watch for my dogs to do something I like, and it is generally fun and very low stress for the dogs, too.

When you set up a training session based on capturing a behavior, antecedents are especially important. There are three types of antecedents: cues, setting factors, and motivating operations.  Cues signal that a certain behavior is likely to be reinforced. Setting factors make the behavior easier to do. Motivating operations provide an impetus for the animal to do it. You can modify the environment and situation through these methods to make the behavior you want easy for the dog to do and hence more likely.

In the case of lying down, I had already reinforced baby Clara for lying down on mats I have scattered around my house as “parking places” for dogs. I have entirely hardwood, tile, and cement floors, so the comfort of a mat on the floor is already an antecedent that sets the scene for the dog to sit or lie down. The mats are both cues for lying down, because of the reinforcement history tied to them, and also setting factors. Lying down on them is more comfortable than on the surrounding floor. I didn’t use a motivating operation, but an obvious one would have been to do the sessions after Clara had exercised and was a little tired. To me that’s a little bit of overkill; I’d rather have an alert puppy and use other ways to make lying down likely. So I used a mat to “jump start” Clara to start offering downs.

If you don’t use mats in your house, you could take your pup to the place where it is most likely that she will lie down. Perhaps her bed (or your bed!). Or you can do the “bathroom” trick. Go into the bathroom with the pup, have a bathmat down, and wait around and be boring until she lies down out of sheer boredom.

A small black and white rat terrier is almost lying down, but her chest and elbows are not touching the floor
Cricket demos the dreaded “bridge” instead of a down. Her chest and elbows are elevated.

(Capturing a down is not ideal for little dogs who hate to lie down. It can be because of the surface, or because they don’t feel safe in that position, or a combination of reasons. You probably already know if you have one of those dogs. Some of them will do the “bridge” approximation like Cricket in the photo.) Capturing could work if you can get them somewhere where they are very comfortable and relaxed, but you might want to use a different force free method instead, like shaping or luring a few repetitions. )

Applying the Cue

This is the other thing that is very hard to comprehend when you come from a traditional training background. We think we need to tell the dog what to do, then make them or get them to do it. To truly cross over, we need to let go of that idea completely and do things the other way around.

One way to help yourself get over the hump is to think of the cue as a label. (This is not technically correct, but it is a stepping stone away from the idea of a “command.”) As Sue Ailsby puts it, our message to the dog and in our heads can be, “That thing you are doing—we are going to call it ‘Down.'”

Again, almost everybody wants to talk first. Most of us have an unconscious belief that the dog understands the trainer’s native human language. And they are so good at reading us that they appear to understand much more language than they actually do.

One way that helped me finally get it that the “meaning” of cues is for us and us alone, was to see the silly cues that people sometimes give to behavior. You don’t have to call a sit “Sit.” You could call it “triangle” or “rocket” or “potaperm” and it would work equally well as a cue for the dog, if you taught it properly. And in fact, doing that—training a trick and giving it a nonsense cue—is an excellent way to see things a little more from the dog’s perspective. We operate from the meaning of the word. They have to go by pure sound recognition and memory.

The usual method of beginning to teach a cue is to get the dog doing the behavior repeatedly and consistently, then start saying the cue just as, or a hair before they perform the behavior. You’ll see that below in Session 4 in the video. My timing is not perfect.  I do it just a tiny bit early the first time, but luckily Clara, though startled, downs anyway.

The Training Sessions

What follows are five training sessions combined onto four videos. I’ve put a little explanation before each one.

Session 1 In order go get Clara “thinking about downs” I start with her on a mat. Then as quickly as I can I take away the mat but work in the same place. I look at her expectantly and she tries it! After she is doing it repeatedly I move us to a different place.

Link to the Session 1 video for email subscribers.

Session 2 First I do some review repetitions in the original location. Then I make a series of mistakes. I take Clara out in the back yard, and it is probably too soon for that more distracting environment. I make it worse by switching to a lower value treat (thinking that it will be easier to see in the grass) that she doesn’t even like. Oh oh! The session goes south. Then I even try to continue after she gets worried about a noise.

Link to the Session 2 video for email subscribers.

Sessions 3 & 4 (on same video)

In Session 3 we work inside again and I have her complete attention. She starts offering me a little duration, so I alternate with feeding her in position and tossing the treat to reset. Note that she is always free to get up after I click, but she sometimes chooses not to.

In Session 4 I start adding the cue as she is in the process of going down. As I mention in the video, she doesn’t “know” the cue yet; it’s just a noise that it happening in the training session. In retrospect I am not pleased with her demeanor in this session; she looks stressy and isn’t having much fun. Insensitive trainer!

In the second part of Session 4 we review “Sit.” If you do one behavior exclusively, especially with a pup, it tends to overshadow everything else. She did know the verbal cue for Sit pretty well, so we did a few successful reps. She was a little perkier, but I still went on at least one rep after she was saying it was time to quit.

Link to the Sessions 3-4 video for email subscribers.

Session 5

In this final session she is offering downs fast and furious so I add the cue again. I think it’s interesting that she actually startles the first time I give the cue (plus I was a tiny bit too early). She looked up and said, “Huh?” Then tried lying down. This session went on a tiny bit too long as well.

I’m always learning as a trainer and I think I am better now at gauging my dogs’ happiness with our activities and judging how long we should go on.

Link to the Session 5 video for email subscribers.

All Grown Up

I’m very grateful that even though Clara has such a short coat, she does not mind lying down on hard surfaces, as many smaller dogs do. Ahem—Cricket—ahem—Zani. It is a strong default behavior for her and we use it all the time.

Clara offers a down with eye contact on a field trip
Clara offers a down with eye contact on a field trip

 A Note about Crossover Dogs

One of my pet peeves is training videos made with dogs who already know the behavior. That is not exactly the case here, but I do realize that Clara has a jump start compared to a lot of dogs, my own crossover dog included.

If your dog is coming from a training background where trying things out has not been encouraged, it will likely take longer for her to catch on to the methods I am describing here, but she probably will eventually. All animals are wired to notice what makes good stuff come their way (as well as what predicts bad stuff). Clara’s readiness to offer behavior is greater than that of dogs who have not been reinforced for that, so naturally things go pretty quickly. I reinforced behaviors of hers I liked from the first day she came in my house, without setting up any formal “training.”

But that can also be a good way to start with a crossover dog. You can use some of the dog’s meal calories during the day by tossing him a good treat when he is doing something you like. In her book Plenty in Life is Free, Kathy Sdao describes a protocol she calls SMART x 50, which she suggests as a way to jump start a healthy training relationship with a dog that is not based on a paradigm of making them “work” for everything. When I first got little Zani, who had been cared for but not trained in her previous home, she lit up with excitement when she realized that she could perform behaviors that earned her treats during everyday life.

OK folks, do you capture? Am I the only capturing fiend? I would love to hear how you set about making desired behaviors more likely, when capturing or using any other method.


Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Stimulus Control, Or Lack Thereof

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?


Eileen’s Related Posts

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson
Updated 2018

Teaching A Dog to Back Up

Teaching A Dog to Back Up

You want to see how to teach a dog to back up without walking into them? Today I’m featuring a video I made about that in 2011 that is quite popular on YouTube, but that I have never shown here.

A brown and white rat terrier is looking eagerly up at her human
Rat terrier Kaci says, “Train me!”

The video features the “channel” technique to teach backing up. You build a little channel out of furniture or household items, get your dog to go to the front of it by throwing a treat up there, then capture (click/treat) their backing up when they back out. This is only a good technique if your dog doesn’t mind small spaces. (Wait until you see my little demo dog! Kaci the rat terrier is fearless and very “in the game.”)

I made the video because almost all the “How To Teach Your Dog To Back Up” videos on YouTube feature some kind of body pressure. Leaning over the dog, stepping into their space, even waving a hand in their face or dragging them backwards. This is using an aversive/avoidance technique, and generally employs negative reinforcement. I avoid using it.

That’s not some kind of theoretical objection on my part. If you want to see an example of the effects of using body pressure vs positive reinforcement, I have a video that demos it with my own dogs: Negative vs Positive Reinforcement. It will be very clear why I avoid body pressure as a training technique. Some dogs are more sensitive than others of course, but if they move away it is aversive by definition.

One lovely exception to the plethora of pressure-based backing up methods on YouTube is one Susan Friedman showed in her class this year. It is by über-trainer Laura Monaco Torelli, who has a video where she teaches her great ridgeback Santino four different behaviors, including backing up. She doesn’t have to throw a treat forward for this experienced dog; she shapes it but sets him up for success by using a narrow passageway to give him a clue which direction is most available for movement.

A brown and white rat terrier is standing by a channel made of crates and boxes, looking expectantly up at her person
Kaci by the channel, ready for action

I did not invent the channel method. I think I first read about it in a post by Greta Kaplan in the ClickerSolutions Yahoo group. But I looked and looked, and couldn’t find an example of it on YouTube, so I made one.

The beauty of it is that it can give a beginning dog/trainer team a jump start on capturing the behavior, rather than using pure shaping. I think shaping this behavior is difficult for beginners. And I’ve noticed that even when free shaping, it is devilishly easy to start using body pressure unconsciously to hurry things along.

In the video I refer to a Part 2. As of September 2015, I haven’t made it yet. But I still plan to.

Brown and white rat terrier backing up
Is this it?

The second half  will show where to go with the behavior once you get the basics using the channel, and some tricks for treat placement.

Link to the backing up tutorial video for email subscribers.

I did make one trial with Clara, to see whether the channel method would work with her. Silly me, brilliant her.  I didn’t notice there was a step in her way, but she sure did. She’s a great problem solver. This should be interesting!

Link to the humorous Clara backing up video. 


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Superstitious Behaviors in Dog Training

Superstitious Behaviors in Dog Training

Definition of a Superstitious Behavior: Accidentally or unintentionally reinforced behavior where a behavior is reinforced but the reinforcement occurred by random chance instead of in accordance with a specific contingency.   —From the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals glossary

My little black cat Arabella never brought me bad luck

I wrote when I started this blog that I was going to share my mistakes in the hopes of helping others learn. Here are some nice big embarrassing ones regarding superstitious behaviors, but at least they date mostly from my earlier training days. Hopefully you, or any beginning trainer, can benefit from the lessons I learned the hard way.

The Terminology

B.F. Skinner first described superstitious behaviors in experiments with pigeons in 1948. He set a feeding mechanism to trip at variable intervals that had nothing to do with the actions of the pigeons. The pigeons nonetheless started repeating behaviors that had been “accidentally” marked and reinforced by the feeder.

The term “superstitious behavior” now refers to any behavior that is accidentally reinforced. A couple of the behaviors in this post stretch the definition. But even if they aren’t technically superstitious, they are nonetheless accidental or at least poorly trained on my part.

Summer’s Nod

When one of my agility buddies encouraged me in 2008 to start using a clicker, I didn’t know that I should practice timing. I didn’t know that there were mechanical and observational skills involved. A clicker seemed like a fun thing and I had heard that dogs got motivated and enjoyed it. So I also didn’t know that it would be wise to start with a behavior that involved only gross motor movements.

Uh oh.

The very first behavior I actually got with a clicker was a head nod, even though I was trying to click for eye contact. I realized this after working on this a few weeks with Summer. Summer would move her head to look at me and I would click. I clicked the eye contact but apparently also clicked the nod.  Strangely, the nod drifted to the period after the click and before treat delivery. The sequence went: eye contact, click, head nod, treat. The nod, immediately preceding the food, accordingly got a ton of reinforcement. Even though she did learn (despite me) that I was trying to teach eye contact, the head nod remained.

Four years later, I still get little nods from Summer. Interestingly, she doesn’t offer it in shaping sessions. When it comes back, it returns in its old place between the marker and the treat when I have just clicked her for something else. This is an example of a superstitious behavior.  And it turns out that I am really good at creating those!

It has faded some over the years, but I found a couple of examples. Want to see?

Zani’s Weave Poles

The following is a behavior that would have been very difficult to teach, had I intended to do so.

In the course of teaching Zani agility weaves using the two by two method, I would tend to mark with a “yes” the moment she made the turn between the last poles. This was the moment I was absolutely sure she was going to complete the behavior correctly. That’s a natural time to mark. But early on in our training, she did a few little jumps through the last pair of poles. I marked, and you can see what happened.

But what is most fascinating is that she does it only when I am on her right side. When I am on her left, she doesn’t do her “jump thing” between the last poles. I speculate that since she is very spatially sensitive, she is less likely to hurl herself out of the weaves when I am close to where she will emerge. Or perhaps I just didn’t mark the exit as much when we practiced on that side.

Clara’s Circles

Those first two behaviors are pretty cute. This behavior of Clara’s that I accidentally reinforced is rather unfortunate.

Clara has always been pushy. When she was about three months old I started a training project of reinforcing her for walking a few feet away when I was interacting with another dog. I started off with the other dogs in crates and was very systematic about it. I drew lines on the floor for my own benefit so as to keep consistent criteria about Clara’s distance from the other dogs. We did lots and lots of sessions where she would walk away a few steps and reorient at some distance.

It would have been better if I had taught a default down or Go to Mat, or at least thrown the treat away from our immediate area. I ended up unintentionally reinforcing a circling behavior. She would walk a few steps away, turn and reorient at the desired distance. I marked the turn way too often, when what I wanted for her was just to back off. But the “backing off” was not a well-defined behavior, even with my lines on the floor. So I ended up clicking an observable behavior, and that was when she turned back to me. Dang.

What is so unfortunate about this is that the circling either morphed into a stress behavior or it was one already. Because I have seen a lot more of it ever since those sessions. Clara tends to do it when I don’t mark a behavior that she expects to be marked. She will immediately whirl around, usually counterclockwise, then often retreat to a mat.

It is impossible to tease apart how much of this is due to all that early reinforcement, and how much of it is a natural stress behavior for her. I do wish I hadn’t trained so many 180 and 270 degree turns when she was young. When I set out to teach her spinning as a trick, it was dead easy, but I gave that a second thought and decided not to use that trick.

Cricket, Too

I even taught superstitious behaviors with Cricket. I tried to train a paw lift as a “wave” trick, but then it started occurring in her “sit” position as a superstitious behavior. Once it started, I kept accidentally reinforcing it. She almost never put her left foot down when she sat for me again. I didn’t know enough at the time to fix the problem I had created.

The way I first taught the behavior was not great either. A friend had suggested holding a treat in my hand and clicking Cricket for pawing at it, then fading the hand and treat. Such a bad idea in so many ways. Reinforcing an enthusiastic digging terrier for pawing at my hand? Ouch.

How To Avoid Training Superstitious Behaviors

I wish I could give some succinct, pithy advice that could keep other newish trainers from doing this. When choosing what behaviors to teach and how to teach them,  it takes experience to learn to predict the ramifications.

Here are the best suggestions I have.

  • Answer a few questions. Is there a persistent extra behavior that is happening when I train this behavior? What’s going to happen if that extra behavior sticks around? How can I get rid of it? If I’m training a trick—might this extra behavior or the trick itself turn up where I don’t want it? Might it interfere with behaviors that are actually more important to train?
  • Video yourself. If you don’t have a teacher, you can learn a lot by recording your training sessions, and if you are brave, showing those recordings to online friends if you don’t have a teacher or local training buddy. People can give much better counsel if they actually see what you and the animal have been doing. Most of us humans could use a lot of work on our observation and description skills. Cameras do a lot better job for a lot of us.
  • Get expert advice. I didn’t have a teacher to ask when I taught most of the behaviors I’ve described here. A professional would have seen most of my mishaps in an instant and showed me how to head them off.

A Success!

One thing that I got right: I started training that “backing up the stairs or wall” trick that was going around a while back. Zani just loved it and started getting good at it. It was great for hind end awareness.

But then one day when we were practicing our two on, two off agility contacts, she overran them and happily backed up into position. That would be a fault in many agility venues. I immediately stopped training the trick. A more experienced or patient trainer could certainly have both behaviors, but sometimes I realize my limitations. The risk wasn’t worth it to me.

Here is one more superstitious behavior Clara and I collaborated on. This is an example of something that is cute when a puppy does it, but can get pretty tiresome in a grown dog. Of course it’s still cute, but who wants their fingers licked Every. Single. Time. They go to open a crate door?

OK folks, please tell me I’m not the only one who trains silly behaviors by accident. Does anybody want to say what they have done? Or are you all perfect?

(Here’s a link to a one minute video that shows all five behaviors, to make my humiliation complete.)

Many thanks to Joyce Loebig for suggestions that improved this post!

Coming Soon

Copyright 2012 Eileen Anderson

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