• Malory Knezha
  • Professional Dog Trainer, Former Real Member Service Specialist

  • 2 minutes read time
  • What is Stimulus Control?

    “Chloe, sit!”

    Instead, Chloe offers her paw.

    “Chloe, sit!”

    Chloe rolls over and excitedly barks. The owners look to me, clearly bewildered by Chloe’s behavior. “She does it all the time at home, she’s just so excited!”

    I had just begun my first week with a new set of dogs in my basic obedience class series. I asked my students to demonstrate the “sit” behavior that they all claimed their dogs understood. This is almost always the case when I ask my pet parents if their dogs know “sit.” They are often surprised, frustrated, or a little combination of both when more often than not, their dogs behave as Chloe did, or not at all. It is the perfect opportunity for me to teach something extremely important within the first 5 minutes of class.

    I have two words for Chloe’s owners and others like her. Stimulus control. The behavior of “sit” is simply not under stimulus control.

    With new information and new training techniques popping up every day, comes new terms to learn. If you are training a new dog, chances are you have heard the word “stimulus control” come up at least once. What does it mean? Stimulus control can be difficult to explain let alone understand. The term is very specific and there are conditions attached to its use.

    What Is A Stimulus ?

    In dog training, stimulus can be defined as a change in the environment that makes a dog do something. The best and most relevant example that I can find is what I like to call the Mailman Phenomenon. The mailman comes every day, consistently with the exception of Sundays and holidays. Often, dogs will bark when the mailman arrives. The mailman is the stimuli.

    Conditioned Stimulus

    In our mailman phenomenon, dogs may begin to bark in anticipation by hearing the noise of the mail truck that precedes the mailman’s arrival. This noise also becomes a stimulus. We would call this a conditioned stimulus.

    Cues, by this definition, are also conditioned stimuli.

    You teach your dog to respond to a cue appropriately by putting the behavior under stimulus control. It is about your dog doing what you want it to do.

    So What Is It?

    “Behaviors are under stimulus control when there is an increased probability that the behavior will occur as a result of the presence of a specific antecedent stimulus.” -How Dogs Learn, Mary R. Burch, Ph.D and Jon S. Bailey, Ph.D

    In lamest terms, behaviors are under stimulus control is when you can accurately predict a desirable outcome to your cues.

    This happens when four conditioned have been fulfilled:

    • The dog always performs the behavior when you give the cue.
    • The dog does not perform a different behavior when given the 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.

    So you see, this is where it gets a little confusing. Just because your dog sits when you ask, does not mean that the behavior is under stimulus control! You need to ask separate questions

    • “Does my dog lie down when I ask for sit?”
    • “Does my dog sit at other times when not asked for the behavior?”
    • “Does my dog sit when I ask him to down.”

    This is all very specific to the context of training sessions, so don’t expect that your dog will never sit when not asked to!

    How To Get It!

    We can see that stimulus control is important. If you can’t guarantee that your dog is going to follow through a cue with an appropriate behavior, the results can be downright dangerous. For example, if you call your dog to come to you, they need to come to you otherwise they could find themselves in the middle of a busy intersection! Stimulus control is what we should all strive for when training our dogs behaviors.

    Essentially, to do this you train your dog. In more specific terms, you will;

    • Reinforce the response you want when you give the cue.
    • Do not reinforce the response in the absence of the cue.

    Dogs are bad with generalizing, so be sure that you “proof” the behavior in various places, with plenty of distractions as well. Your dog determines what is the reinforcement. Most dogs love tasty treats like these, but some dogs prefer toys and a game of tug of war. My Border Collie finds sniffing the ground to be very reinforcing. My Sheltie will do absolutely anything for her favorite squeak toy or food. Remember that consistency and repetition are the most important pieces to the training puzzle. You should aim for 5 minutes, 3 times a day bare minimum to work with your dog. You can always increase the amount of times you train, but keep the sessions to no more than 5 minutes at a time. The attention span of a dog is very comparable to human children, and we need to be sure to keep our dogs engaged, otherwise the training will not work!

    It is very common for us to think we have trained a behavior, when we really have not. Ask yourself if your dog sometimes offers other behaviors when you ask for one. Ask yourself if he sometimes responds to a different cue than the one you are attempting to train. Regular training will set your behaviors on the way to stimulus control in no time!

    Good luck, and remember to have fun!

    Sources: “The Behavior of Organisms” B.F. Skinner “How Dogs Learn” Mary R. Burch, Ph.D and Jon S. Bailey, Ph.Dhttps://thehappypuppysite.com/what-is-stimulus-control/