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Solving Dog Behavior Problems Through Stimulus Control

Most of us teach our dogs a limited number of behaviors, usually only the ones which make our daily life manageable. Yet we also know that dogs develop certain behaviors on their own to some degree.

If we paid attention, we would realize what triggers and rewards lead to those behaviors that dogs seemingly develop out of the blue. Humans often simply miss those connections. Our dogs, however, don’t. They notice so much more than we realize. That’s frequently how problem behaviors take root.

If you’re up to the challenge (and this is some fairly advanced dog training), consider putting those problem behaviors under what’s called “stimulus control.” Essentially, you can teach your dog to do the behavior only when you ask for it – almost like a dog trick.

What is Stimulus Control?

There are 4 rules for stimulus control:

1. The dog does the behavior every time you “cue” or ask for it.

2. The dog does not offer the behavior if you haven’t asked for it.

3. The dog does not offer the behavior in response to any other cues or triggers.

4. The dog does not offer any other behaviors when you give the chosen cue.

Stimulus Control for Dogs Example #1: Jumping Up

For 9 years, I lived with a fearful Border Collie. One of the things she did when she got nervous was jump on me by standing on her hind legs and putting her paws on my chest.

I decided to honor her need for comfort by allowing her to jump on me in this way, but I wanted to control the behavior.

If we were in a situation where she needed my comfort, I could ask her to jump up on me (using the verbal cue “stretch” and the physical cue of tapping my chest). I like to think teaching this as a trick gave her some control too. Instead of a panic-driven behavior, it became one she chose to do because I’d asked for it and rewarded it.

Stimulus Control for Dogs Example #2: Barking

Barking is another problem behavior that some people try to put under stimulus control. Many fail because they don’t follow the process all the way through, and they don’t “proof” the behavior – which essentially means testing it to see if it meets all 4 rules of stimulus control.

When it comes to barking, which can be a self-rewarding behavior for dogs, people often choose to teach both a bark cue and a stop-barking cue. Think of it as an on/off switch for the behavior.

Others owners choose to teach a “quiet cue” instead. Getting dogs to bark on cue is one thing; getting them to stop barking in real-world situations is something else. You have to set up and train specific bark-inducing scenarios for training to be effective.

Miriam Hughes, a dog artist and dog trainer in North Carolina, teaches “bark”/”be quiet” in a 3-step plan which responds to a guest arriving at the home and ringing the doorbell:

1. Wait inside the closed door with your dog on a short leash.

2. Have your training “guest” ring the doorbell, but don’t open the door. Instead, say “Sssh” and give your dog a treat when she takes a break from barking. She will probably bark again. Wait for her to stop. Say “Sssh” again, and give her a treat. Do this at least 10 times (with one doorbell ring at a time) so your dog recognizes the pattern of getting a treat for being quiet (after a bark or two).

3. Have your training “guest” ring the doorbell and let them in this time. The guest must completely ignore the dog while you continue to “Sssh” and give treats.

Hughes admits that most people get frustrated with barking and fall back to telling the dog “NO!” The key is to stick with the plan and time your rewards well so that you are rewarding the quiet and not the barking.

…And a Stimulus Control Dog Failure

I talked to my own dog trainer about this article, and she told me that most people don’t follow the rules and don’t train the behavior completely. This results in dogs who bark (or exhibit any other problem behavior) more, not less. If you’re not fully committed to the process, stimulus control isn’t something you should try.

You really have to train in specific scenarios and test to see if your dog has the behavior under control. You cannot simply wait for real-world situations to crop up and try to teach stimulus control; you have to set up those situations and train your dog in a controlled environment.