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Stimulus control

Proper stimulus control is said to have four characteristics:
▪    The behaviour occurs immediately when the conditioned stimulus is given.
▪    The behaviour never occurs in the absence of the stimulus (in a training situation)
▪    The behaviour never occurs in response to some other stimulus.
▪    No other behaviour occurs in response to this stimulus

Stimulus control means putting behaviour on cue – that is, your dog will do it when asked, but not at other times, and will also stop when asked. An important part of stimulus control training is that you teach your dog not to offer this particular behaviour in a training situation unless asked to do so.

There are various stages involved in teaching a dog to perform an action on cue. These are explained in the *STAR* System.

You always start with getting the behaviour and reinforcing it. For example, if you want to teach your dog to shake hands, you don’t start by saying “shake”, because your dog doesn’t understand the word yet. Start by rewarding your dog when she raises a paw just a little bit. As a result of reinforcement, her paw movements will get bigger and more deliberate.

When this is happening predictably, you can shift your focus to the stimulus control stage of training (i.e. focussing on the signal rather than the action).

First, introduce the signal or cue “shake” just before the your dog does the action, then reward. This is “attaching a label to the action”. After a while, your dog will recognise the label and offer a paw in response to the word “shake” rather than because of what you were doing before to bring the action about. This is an important breakthrough. When this is happening reliably, you can move on to the next stage.

As well as rewarding your dog when she offers a paw when you say “shake”, don’t reward at times when her paw is offered but you haven’t said “shake”. It is important not to “correct” or reprimand your dog for this – after all you have recently been rewarding your dog for doing just that. But now you are teaching your dog to be a little more discriminating: in effect “wait until I say so”.

Dogs can easily become confused in the stimulus control stage of training – after all, you are changing the rules. When they are not sure of what behaviour you want, they tend to “go through the repertoire”, trying all the actions they have recently been learning. So your dog might try dropping or rolling over, or barking as well as shaking, as if to say “is this it, is this it?”

Stimulus control is achieved when your dog no longer offers spontaneous paw shakes, shakes reliably when asked to shake, doesn’t shake when asked to roll over and doesn’t roll over when asked to shake.

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