Thursday, January 14, 2016

Dog training tip o' the day: Stimulus Control

Dog training tip o' the day: Do you have a dog that starts throwing every trick he knows at you when training time starts? Are you trying to isolate a single desired behaviour out of an assortment of offered ones? Time to work on stimulus control!
Stimulus control: 
"A conditioned stimulus becomes a discriminative stimulus (or cue) when it is followed by a specific learned behavior or reaction. The response is said to be 'under stimulus control' when presentation of the particular stimulus fulfills these four conditions: the behavior is always offered when that cue is presented; the behavior is not offered in the absence of that cue; the behavior is not offered in response to some other cue; and no other behavior occurs in response to that cue."
When we teach a dog something new, the first thing we look to do is get the behaviour. Once we have the behaviour, we add the cue. Next, we polish the behaviour and fine tune it -- you can also add a new cue to this improved behaviour at this point, if desired. Then, you need to get this new behaviour under stimulus control.
Since stimulus control comes later in the learning process, it's often something that novice trainers forget about or choose to bypass because they're pleased with the behaviour as it exists already. But if it's ignored or only completed part way, you can end up with one of those dogs that throws everything they know at you, ad infinitum, as you reach for the cookie jar. Sound familiar? Some people find enjoyment in their dogs doing this and will reinforce this "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach. If you do, that's fine! However, you may never end up with clean behaviours, or with a dog who eagerly waits to hear what you have to say.
To get a behaviour on stimulus control requires that you go back to the teaching process. Pick one or more simple behaviours and methodically establish the criteria for each cue. This means:
- you want your pup to sit when you say sit
- you don't want your pup to sit when you say something else
- you don't want your pup to sit when you say nothing
- you don't want your pup to do something else when you say sit
Only reward if your dog is performing the desired behaviour when you use your desired cue. If they do something else, whoops, no reward this time, nice try buddy! Try again! If your pup is making mistakes multiples times in a row, or more than 10-20% of the time, the exercise is likely to hard. Try to make it a bit easier on them. Keep these proofing sessions very short and spaced a few hours apart, at least.
You can have fun during this process. You can also take it to new heights by alternating what you're doing when you offer your verbal cue. Spin or hide out of sight or whisper or sit on a couch or work in a new environment to change up the picture for your dog and to further cement the "sit means sit" association in your dog's head. Once your dog has a handful of actions under good stimulus control, he & you should have a significantly easier times going forward in training because he understands that specific behaviours are linked to specific cues and only cued behaviours are rewarded.
Problems with stimulus control are often seen as problems with over-arousal during training sessions. Stay tuned for my next Dog Training Tip O' The Day for some more ideas on how to address over-arousal.
This was something that was asked as part of my recent call for submissions for dog training tips. Thank you to everyone who asked about it. If you have a question of your own, feel free to submit it here, on this page or via private message. Happy clicking!

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