Sunday, January 18, 2009

22 A Putting a Behaviour or Task Under Stimulus Control

What is Stimulus Control? 

There are 4 parts of a behaviour or task being under stimulus control:

1. The dog knows exactly what the finished behaviour is and responds quickly when the cue is given.
2. The dog does not do the behaviour when no cue is given.
3. The dog does not give that behaviour when cued to do a different behaviour
4. The dog doesn't offer a different behaviour when you give the cue.

Having a behaviour under stimulus control means that the dog can do it reliably when you need it and is not guessing at what you need her to do by offering a different behaviour. This is particularly important when there are two or more behaviours that are very similar.

'Dance" Paws up to hand deliver an object

"Slide" Pulling zipper tab down
For example, I have a 'dance' cue where the dog rears up and puts his front paws on my arm that is in front of me (useful for a retrieval of an object to my hand when standing). I also have a "slide' cue where the dog rears up and places her front paws on my hand that is placed on my hip and then grabs the zipper tab to pull the zipper down. Most people think that the dog should understand what you want by the simple contextual differences, but unless you practice them together, it would take much longer to learn on her own, with a higher rate of errors.

The exact circumstances of stimulus control vary depending on which trainer you talk to. VIAD uses the definition that for service dogs, stimulus control should occur when the dog is in a training session (except during a shaping session), or in a working situation (on duty at home or in public). The definition of 'working' is defined by the period between when the handler starts or dismisses the dog from work. For many dogs, 'work' begins when the vest or harness goes on and ends when it comes off. At other times such as relaxing, behaviours they do naturally such as sit, down, carry objects, potty etc, they are free to do when they are on their own time.

Some trainers believe that to be true stimulus control, the animal should follow all 4 rules at all times when the handler is present or not. You can decide what is realistic for you and your service dog in the situations you are in and train to that standard.

How to Train a Behaviour to Stimulus Control:

A. First the behaviour must be on cue. It needs to have either a hand, body and/or verbal cue. I usually teach the hand or body cue first, then add the verbal cue after since most dogs tend to learn the visual cues faster. (see post 22 for adding a cue). Practice these until the dog performs the correct task promptly after each cue.

B.  Next you need to do training sessions where you practice the new behaviour and one or two other behaviours that are already under stimulus control.

In the first session, ask the dog to alternate the new behaviour with a known one.
So it doesn't get boring, try to avoid patterning and throw in an unexpected behaviour here and there. If the behaviour does not involve moving at all, alternate it with a different behaviour. In my example I can do two or more 'slide' in a row since the dog must rear up and then move to a stand position. Two stands, sits or downs in a row may confuse the dog as she would be staying still.

sit, slide, down, slide, down, slide, sit, slide, down, slide
Mark and reward each cued behaviour that is performed correctly.

C. The next session, add another behaviour.
sit, slide, down, slide, stand, slide, slide, sit, slide, stand

D. From here, mix it up in various combinations with the new behaviour being asked for less often.

slide, sit, down, stand, sit, slide, stand, sit, slide, down

E. Also ask for more difficult or complex behaviours in combination with the new one. If they require much effort, ask for a shorter series of behaviours and give a break. If they require distance, start with short distances before making it harder with longer ones. Mixing up the behaviours this way also makes it more fun for the dog as he doesn't know what will be asked next.

Retrieve, slide, go bed, hand touch, slide, go paw

F. Next, choose behaviours that are more similar and practice those in combination before adding a third behaviours.
dance, slide, dance, slide, slide, dance, dance, slide, dance, slide

(With the particular behaviour of 'slide', it was trained with the opposite behaviour of 'zip' first so the dog clearly understand that while both cues involve a zipper, one involves an upward pull, the other a downward pull.

zip, slide, zip, slide. 

In this specific behaviour, I put on two different jackets and had the dog unzip one, the other, then zip up one of the first. 
Then slide, slide, zip, zip, slide, zip)

For behaviors that have similarly sounding verbal cues (either starting or ending consonants or middle vowel sounds), you will need to practice those together until the dog learns to distinguish auditorally between them. "shut" and "push", "slow" and "go", "push" and "pull". A careful choice of very different verbal cues for use in the same context can avoid confusion for dogs that are not verbally inclined.

G. Now, add another behaviour into the mix and repeat.

Testing the 4 Parts of Stimulus Control

1. The first part should be completed before you start to train for stimulus control. The dogs needs to understand the complexities of the behaviour and do it promptly and correctly when cued.

2. Ideally between each session, the dog has a break to go do what she wants or a play session with a toy and does not offer any behaviour until it is cued at the start of the next training session. In the first stages of this, be ready to cue the behaviour as soon as you start the session, later on you can wait to see if the dog offers it on her own (which you don't want to have happen). If the dog does not offer the behaviour, this is a pass for test number 2.

3. To test number 3, cue a series of  different behaviours in a row including the new one and observe if the dog only does behaviours as they are cued (and are correct).

4. To test number 4, give the cue in several different locations when the dog is not expecting it and to pass, the dog only does the new cued behaviour.

Share your experiences in training to stimulus control below.

Other Environments:

Retrain and test behaviours in different environments to ensure the dog understands the behavior and it is under stimulus control.