With new dog training methods have come some new words and phrases. Stimulus control is one of them!
People quite often ask “what IS stimulus control” and the point of this article is to answer that question.
I’ll be providing a clear definition of stimulus control, and explaining how it can help you to train your dog.
Let’s begin at the beginning!
What is a stimulus
We are all familiar with the word ‘stimulation’. Many of us associate the word with sex or with activities that occupy the mind.
The word is derived from the noun stimulus, which simply means a change in the environment.
That’s it? Just a change in the environment?
Well, not quite.
Making the dog do something
In dog training, we often use the word stimulus to mean a change in the environment that makes the dog DO something.
Your dog will react, or behave in a specific way in response to all kinds of environmental changes.
A postman knocking at the door is a stimulus for the dog to bark.
The sight of you running away is a stimulus for the dog to run after you.
A conditioned stimulus
If you blow your recall whistle each time the dog runs after you, the whistle (which previously had no meaning for the dog) becomes a stimulus too.
We call this a conditioned stimulus.
It’s a cue
In dog training this term applies to all the cues we use to make the dog perform a specific response. Cues like ‘sit’, ‘down’ and ‘come’.
You train your dog to respond appropriately to a cue, by putting that cue under stimulus control.
Aaarrggghhh – what does THAT mean?.
Don’t panic. Stimulus control is about the dog doing what you want it to. But the term is very specific. And there are some conditions attached to its use.
You’ll find these conditions helpful, because they will tell you for sure, if your work on this particular skill is complete
Stimulus control is not just about the dog doing what it is told. It goes further than that.
A behavior is said to be under stimulus control when we can accurately predict a desirable outcome to our cue. We can truly say this has happened when four conditions have been fulfilled
- The dog always performs the behavior when you give your cue
- The dog does not perform a different behavior in response to that cue
- The dog does not perform the behavior in the absence of the cue
- The dog does not perform the behavior in response to a different cue
As you can see, this is not just a case of the dog ’barking’ when you say ‘speak’. You need to ask “does he sometimes lie down, or spin in a circle when I say ‘speak’?”
“Does he bark at other times?” ”
And does he bark when I tell him to sit?”
But my dog often does that!
“But wait a minute” you say “my dog often sits or lies down. If I haven’t told him to, does that mean his behavior is not under stimulus control?”
The answer is ‘no’, this is a question of context.
Specifically, it is about the context of the ‘training session’
It is fine if your dog performs natural behaviors without being cued to do so, provided those behaviors don’t occur during the training session.
How do we get stimulus control?
So, if stimulus control means a specific response to a specific cue, and only that response and only to that cue, how do we make this happen?
The answer is that we reinforce the response we want in the presence of the cue, and do not reinforce that response in the absence of that cue.
Which is essentially what dog training is all about.
But of course, it isn’t quite that simple, or rather, it is that simple, but it takes a bit longer to do this, than it takes to describe it. Which is not surprising.
Many times, we think we have taught a dog a specific response to a specific cue, when we have not.
When you have taught your dog to sit, or lie down, or any other skill, ask yourself if your dog sometimes offers other responses to your cue.
And ask yourself if he sometimes offers that response to a different cue. For example, does he sometimes lie down when you ask him to sit, and vice versa.
This is very common, and just means that you haven’t quite yet achieved stimulus control.
Regular training will soon set that right.
Once you full fill the four conditions above, you can say “my work here is done” and move on to your next fun training task!