With the explosion of clicker training and the incorporation of behaviourist terms into general dog training “speak” and discussions, “stimulus control” is a term that’s often bandied about.
With grateful thanks to The University of South Florida Glossary for Behaviour Analysis, I gathered the following definitions:-
“A phenomenon described by a very high probability of behaviours occurring (or not occurring) in the presence of particular antecedent stimuli, and a very low (or higher) probability of occurring in their absence. “
“The control that stimuli in our environment acquire over the behaviour we emit in their presence.”
As usual in the scientific pursuit of precise terms with which to describe events, the ability to communicate with ordinary people outside of their own speciality is often lost. A shame really, as the behaviourists have a lot to offer most dog trainers, not just those who use a clicker.
Back to stimulus control, how does it relate to Agility? Let’s take the example of the tunnel. Most people find a way of encouraging the dog through the tunnel and then reward. After a few repetitions, they add a cue such as “tunnel” or “chute”. Pretty soon they include it in a sequence of obstacles. Job done!
I was recently asked by the Skyline Agility Club in NY to do a seminar on distance work. The first thing that I need to know, when trying to teach a dog to work something such as a tunnel from a distance, is how does the dog know that he’s supposed to go and do the tunnel? Or, put another way, what is the “stimulus” that prompts the dog’s action? The average handler will tell you some thing like “I point and he knows” or I say “tunnel” and he does the tunnel. Some will tell you that their dog won’t do the tunnel unless they say so. So we put up the following: -
Handlers had to sit in the chair, with their hands under their legs, back pressed back against the chair back and head still. They were then allowed to give one verbal cue.
I think there was one success. When that dog was then cued to do the jump, he repeated the tunnel…………….. Skyline had put together a really nice group of handlers and they all took it in good part, everyone interested to see what their dog would do, we had a lot of fun with this one!
With regard to Agility, what does it tell you? That there was not one dog there that knew what the word “tunnel” meant when it was isolated from body language.
Next I had people, still sitting in the chair, pointing at the tunnel as well as giving their tunnel cue. We had one or two successes there, especially when the handlers remembered to LOOK where they were pointing, instead of looking at their poor confused dog! Not one dog was successful when cued to do the jump in that way.
Next handlers were allowed to stand up and point – it’s amazing how many tried to fling their arms in the direction of the tunnel! Standing up is a fairly hefty clue for most dogs. Think about it, what generally happens when you sit down as far as your dog’s concerned? What happens to me is, of course, that my pup jumps all over me in his efforts to persuade me to play but older, more sensible dogs know that playtime is over, time to settle down. Standing up is a general cue for action, would the combined voice and hand signals, together with the posture now be successful? No, what it took for the majority of dogs was for the handler to move towards the tunnel. Forward movement in the direction of the tunnel was the stimulus for most dogs. What their handlers did with their voice and arms was irrelevant.
How does this relate to Agility and handling in general? Think about the way that you handle your dog – what does the average handler do when the dog doesn’t respond to a cue? Say it a little louder? Just like the comedy shows where the actor is talking to someone who doesn’t speak English….shout loudly and they WILL understand? How about so-called “tunnel-sucker” dogs? Unless you know precisely how the dog is taking the information as to which obstacle is next, how would you deal with a dog of this description? If all it takes were for the handler to move towards the tunnel, one could say that the dog has been given the cue for the obstacle, any movement towards the tunnel would be a cue to do the thing!
So the next time you think to yourself, I TOLD him to take the jump, ask yourself the question, you may well have thought that you told him, but have you ever tested your training to discover exactly what your dog understands by your cues?
© Jo Sermon, Agility Training 2003-2004, All Rights Reserved