Stimulus control

One of the most interesting ‘rules’ I heard about when I started clicker training, and started to look at the science behind learning, was the concept of stimulus control. i.e. you give significance to a cue by ONLY reinforcing that particular version of a behaviour when you present the cue. You also DIDN’T reward it in the absence of that cue. I learned from experience the environmental cues mattered too, but the principles remain the same.


Don’t want your dog to randomly jump up and grab things – e,g, the lead – in your hand? Teach a cue which means ‘grab what is in my hand’ and put it under stimulus control. No need to tell the dog off or stop playing tuggie with the lead, or tuggie toys that look like leads, just don’t reward him for jumping up grabbing without that ‘permission’ cue.

From a competitive obedience point of view that was highly desirable and what we really did – and do -need.

Domestically…did it matter so much? I thought then that it probably did, and still do. Its just so much harder to use effectively in the ‘real world’. It teaches the dog the cues you present to them – i.e. your ‘commands’ – ARE important, worth listening to and are opportunities to earn reinforcement. Those cues don’t have to be verbal. They can be gestures, but verbal cues are usual far simpler and more black and white to teach. There was a great video of one trainer showing how he taught it ….cue, behaviour, good consequence. No cue – behaviour? No positive consequence. i.e. no reward. Just repeated and repeated in a random way, until the penny drops.

For behaviours that aren’t reinforced by other people, or intrinsically rewarding (a great example usually being barking) , it is a great way to reduce the dog randomly annoying us with things we’ve only half trained them to do or things we want them to do sometimes, but not at others. It also explains why once a dog understands a ‘cue’ and it’s been taught the concept of stimulus control (dogs do get it!), they will steadfastly appear to “refuse” to do it when you use even a slightly different cue by mistake.

Want a more comprehensive, but very readable, explanation? Look at chapter 3 in Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoort the Dog.

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