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Understanding Stimulus Control in Dog Training

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Sit means sit!

Sit means sit!

What's the Deal With Stimulus Control in Dog Training?

You may have heard a dog trainer mention "stimulus control," or perhaps a training manual mentioned that behavior must "be put under stimulus control." But what does that term mean?

If you never heard of this term before, no worries! The first time I really heard the term was in dog training school when our master dog trainer introduced us to several scientific terms related to the process of learning. It took a while for us to fully grasp its meaning, but with a few examples, we all got it. On that day we found out that stimulus control was actually unknowingly being applied by all of us both in training our dogs or performing everyday behaviors for many years without even being aware of it!

There's no need though to become a dog trainer to understand stimulus control as it can ultimately apply to many, many things in life we do. Indeed, most of the scientific terms used in dog training are the same used for explaining the learning process of humans.

Indeed, a few years prior to becoming a dog trainer, I was a school-aged teacher and I was amazed at how the learning principles in teaching children are quite similar to those in teaching dogs. Seeing how these two disciplines of teaching children and training dogs related were quite fascinating, to say the least! In this article, I will try my best to explain the term in an easy-to-comprehend manner so that it will hopefully become more clear.

Keep your dog under stimulus control!

Keep your dog under stimulus control!

Analyzing the Term Stimulus Control

Before defining stimulus control, let's take a look at the words that compose the term. What is a stimulus? According to Mary R. Burch and Jon Bailey, authors of the book How Dogs Learn, "a stimulus is any object or event that can be detected by the senses and that can affect a person's or animal's behavior."

Both humans and dogs have special sensory receptors that are meant to respond to internal or external stimuli. When the external/internal stimuli are detected, the sensory receptors transmit information about them to the brain, evoking behavior. Here are a few examples of sensory receptors:

  • Skin receptors on the skin detect touch, temperatures, pressure, vibration, and pain.
  • Taste receptors in the taste buds detect bitter, sweet, sour, and salty tastes.
  • Auditory receptors detect loud, acute, deep, vibrating noises.
  • Olfactory receptors detect pleasant, unpleasant, revolting odors.
  • Photoreceptor cells in our retinas detect light, dark, and colors.
  • Proprioceptors are internal sensory receptors that detect how our muscles and tendons stretch so we can gain a sense of balance and awareness of the position of various parts of our body.

So it can be said that every moment of our lives is in some way impacted by stimuli that trigger responses. Stimuli evoke behaviors by transferring energy into our nervous system through our sensory receptors, a process known as stimulation. And when our bodies react to such stimulation, behavior occurs. So in its simplest explanation, we can say that stimuli are sounds, foods, touches, and visual cues that we are exposed to on an everyday basis.

The next word that we want to learn more about is control. What is control? According to the Oxford Dictionary, control is "the power to influence or direct people's behavior or the course of events." When it comes to dog training, the term control is often used liberally.

We often hear people say in regards to unruly dogs "Keep your dog under control" or "Control your dog, please!" Some may even think "dogs need to be under our control." The word "animal control" also implies a person who is able to use a "catch pole" to control a rambling dog. However, we tend to forget that it's not really the dog that one must control, but the behavior of the dog. This is quite different! This can make us see things differently shifting from a need to control dogs, to a need to improve clarity in our communication and training with our dogs so that we can help them learn good behaviors.

If somebody says to us in a derogatory tone, "keep your dog under control" as our dog pulls toward his dog, we often think it means to keep our dog on a short leash so he no longer drags towards his dog, but there's a more effective way to keep a dog under control in the name of training and that is by keeping the behavior of the dog "under stimulus control."

How is this accomplished? By simply cueing a dog to heel instead of giving a forceful leash pop and keeping the leash extra short as our poor dog grunts, gags, and chokes.

Is he under stimulus control?

Is he under stimulus control?

So What Is Stimulus Control?

Back to our pulling dog example (where our dog pulls toward another dog he sees on a walk and the owner says "Keep your dog under control"), it's important to understand exactly the dynamics that are taking place. The other dog walking, in this case, is a stimulus that is detected by the sensory receptors of our dog and that triggers his pulling behavior. Because the other dog triggers our dog to pull, we say that the sight of the appearance of the other dog is an antecedent event.

Antecedent events may sound like something fancy, but all they are are simply events that trigger behavior. So anything that occurs before a behavior is an antecedent, but as our dog sees the other dog, we must consider that he also sees a tree, the owner, and the sidewalk, but none of these trigger the behavior of pulling.

Only the sight of the dog reliably triggers the pulling behavior response. So we can say that the presence of other dogs has stimulus control over our dog's pulling. Stimulus control occurs when behaviors are controlled by the antecedent stimulus.

Many of our behaviors as humans are under stimulus control. For example, we reliably stop when the antecedent event of a green light turning red takes place. We are so used to doing this, that our pedal pushing behavior to stop our car has become almost reflexive. Our behavior is so well under stimulus control that we only stop at the red light and not when it's green. In a similar fashion, we enter only stores that have the sign "open" and ignore the stores with the "closed" signs.

Back to our pulling dog, in a similar fashion, our dog has been conditioned to reliably pull when he sees other dogs but he can care less when he sees a tree, a sidewalk, or a person walking. To be precise, since the dog discriminates and only pulls toward dogs, but not the tree, sidewalk and people, it can be predicted that the other dogs are a discriminate stimulus. Anything that's present before a behavior that is likely reinforced is a discriminative stimulus.

Why Do Our Dogs Pull?

Pulling in this case likely has a history of reinforcement. It can be that in the past, our dog pulled and this caused us to advance a step or two, enough for our dog to go be able to go sniff or meet another dog.

Because the dog has been able to reach or at least get closer to the objects of his desire (other dogs), pulling is perceived as reinforcing. Anything reinforcing activates centers of the brain that are involved in motivation, and therefore this scenario will be repeated over and over if the owner doesn't intervene to train the dog in more polite leash manners.

To recap here are a few explanations of the terms discussed:

  • Antecedent event/stimulus: a stimulus that immediately precedes a behavior
  • Neutral stimulus: An antecedent/event stimulus that doesn't evoke behavior
  • Discriminative stimulus: An antecedent stimulus that evokes a behavior with a history of reinforcement.
The Dalmatian spots other dogs and looks at me to start heeling.

The Dalmatian spots other dogs and looks at me to start heeling.

The Process of Switching Stimulus Control

So in the case of the dog pulling at the sight of the other dogs, how can stimulus control help us?

In this case, we can still keep the power of the discriminative stimulus alive, perhaps fading it a little bit to keep the edge off by keeping distance and keeping the dog under threshold. Instead of reinforcing the pulling by allowing our dog to pull us closer to the dog, we can train the dog that the sight of the dog means that you will give him tasty, high-value treats for walking by your side.

You can even prompt the heeling behavior by making a smacking sound with your mouth and keeping treats at eye level so as to help your dog perform the heeling behavior.

In this case, you will be using Differential Reinforcement to bring heeling behavior under stimulus control, a win-win situation for you and your dog!

Disclaimer: Because behavior modification comes with some risks, for safety purposes, please enlist the help of a force-free trainer or behavior professional for help with correct implementation of these methods for dogs with behavior problems

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Tori Leumas on October 04, 2020:

This is a cool article. I don’t know if you would know how to fix this, but my family’s dog has a huge issue that is a problem with my little niece and nephew around. He’s an 80 pound Great Dane Black Lab mix. Whenever he wants something, he charges through to get it, no matter what or who is in the way. He’s a bull in a china shop. He shoves past people and forces his way through when there isn’t a big space. He’s knocked people over and sent my little 1 yr old niece flying. My niece just today was sent flying into the corner of a doorframe because the dog shoved through the doorway because he wanted to go out. And now she has a huge nasty knot above her eye. The dog demands to go out whenever he likes as often as every 20 minutes and pees all over if he’s not put out whenever he wants. How do we get the dog to stop being such a bully? (My family for some reason doesn’t think that he’s being a bully, they just say he’s just being a dog)

mel on August 24, 2019:

This was a fascinating article. My English Cocker, when she was a puppy, 9-10 months of age started growling at other dogs on leash at our kennel club. My response was to put her in heel position and start asking for behaviors. I was told by 2 dog colleagues that this wasnt helping the problem. It turns out that from a point of stimulus control....this is EXACTLY what I should have been doing. She is 3.5 now and still is not crazy about other dogs but the problem seems to have resolved itself. She cares about her mommy and what we are doing at the dog park and largely ignores the other dogs.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 28, 2015:

Thank you so much DDE, horses used to be my favorite animals and I grew up with a couple, but now dogs are my primary passion! They are so wonderful and there's so much to learn!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 28, 2015:

Nice photo! Informative and dogs are my favorite pets.