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Stimulus Control, Frustration, and Poisoned Cues

Updated: Jan 2

By: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Whether we have a working dog, a performance dog, or a pet dog, stimulus control (aka impulse control) is everything. We don't want our dog pulling over to every dog they see on a walk, deciding to explore the goose poop on the ground during an agility run, saying "hi" to the judge or spectators during a competitive event, or eating food off the ground while working as a service dog team. All dogs need to learn some measure of self-control in the presence of particular stimuli in order to be successful at their job. Dogs are not born with this ability. We must teach them, but how we teach them sets them up for success or failure. It is too simple to focus on teaching our dogs "behaviors" -- in other words, a trick or task -- while ignoring the most crucial component. To me, the most crucial component is the conditioned emotional response (CER) that the dog will associate with performing that behavior.

Positive trainers may think, "Well, give him his favorite treat for doing XYZ", but developing a positive CER goes far beyond that. Have you ever observed very different levels of consistency and enthusiasm from a dog for behaviors that appear very similar? E.g. moving from something to get a treat from the handler? (Watch me, Look at that, Come, Leave it). That boils down to CERs. We must make sure to build strong and positive CERs and not poison these cues by offering them in situations where the activity itself or the reward following the requested behavior is too low in value against what is available in the environment to the dog.

How do we develop stimulus control while maintaining a positive CER? Some people like to train a voluntary "leave it" cue and reward the dog with a high value treat each time he leaves the stimulus. For me, "leave it" is a specific behavior -- a head turn away from the stimulus. This may work well for some dogs but not so well for others. "Leave it" may become a poisoned cue if overused in situations where the dog is repeatedly asked to give up access to something of high value, such as smells on walks or access to other dogs that are nearby, especially if the reward offered is of lower value. When teaching stimulus control, it is important to move slowly and to make sure that the reward being offered initially is at least as valuable as what else is available to the dog in the environment. Then, we can shift around to various rewards as he is gradually gains control of his impulses and stays on task in the presence of these stimuli.

I like to map out the various rewards that exist for a particular dog and train activities to be inherently rewarding (see my earlier post on the "Come" cue). Anything that a dog enjoys -- including highly rewarded trained tasks and behaviors he would naturally perform -- are rewards. I like to give each of them names. If I am walking my dogs and they sniff incessantly, I say "Walk!" and they quickly go back to walking ahead because that is the reward that is accessible to them at that moment, and it is truly rewarding for them. Obviously, I allow them to sniff extensively during walks because they enjoy it. However, it can become frustrating for the other two dogs if we are standing in one place for five minutes because our intact male wants to sniff that spot non-stop. I have to balance everyone's needs. Similarly I tell him "Run!" tries to stop and smell while we are on a jog and he excitedly bolts ahead. I use this in other scenarios as a marker word where he is rewarded by us bolting into a run for 20 feet or so. For an agility dog, it could mean creating more value in particular obstacles or types of movements to become a highly rewarding trained activity. Sometimes we think certain things are more rewarding than they actually are to our dogs.

I also utilize the Premack Principle to allow a dog access to whatever that reward may be if he forgoes it for a certain (gradually increasing) period of time. For a scent-oriented agility dog, that may mean gradually increasing the number of obstacles the dog must perform before he is allowed to claim his reward to "sniff". Alternatively, distractions can gradually be added (treats in bags, toys lying out, people, dogs) for a distraction-prone dog that he must ignore either for an alternative reward, or gradually increasing the delay of the reward that is clearly indicated with a specific marker word. The key is to avoid inducing frustration by presenting the stimuli in a low-intensity setting initially, and to present a variety of high value rewards which in this case are rewarding tasks he is already supposed to be doing. This may not work for all dogs, but an activity or natural motor pattern is frequently more highly rewarding than food for working breeds. These same working breeds may be prone to frustration due to their genetic selection for high drive.

It is too easy to induce frustration by pushing a dog to perform the finished behavior too quickly, expecting too much too soon out of the dog. I see this frequently with trick trainers doing high pressure training sessions. I see this all the time with trick and dog sports trainers who insist on free-shaping complex behaviors to create a "thinking dog" when what the dog really wants and needs is a little information so he can make good choices, such as through subtle prompting, luring, or targeting. While one dog may enjoy offering behaviors on his own to see if one will earn him a treat, another may feel helpless and become frustrated by that expectation. With basic obedience, trainers may push too hard when teaching duration behaviors, such as "stay/wait" and "leave it", and expect an unrealistic amount of stimulus control too soon.

In the context of behaviors and stimulus control, frustration or even complete avoidance of performing the requested behavior may be observed if a positive CER is not developed and maintained by keeping the activity rewarding and limiting frustration. The reward must be commensurate with the level of difficulty for the dog emotionally at the time of training. Common examples include when a dog is asked to continue running the agility course when other interesting stimuli are present (dropped food, rabbit poop, people/dogs, favorite obstacles) and the dog barks wildly or shows avoidance while ignoring the handler's repeated cues; a dog is asked to "stay/wait" when he would rather by playing and either barks at the owner or moves away upon hearing the cue word; a dog is asked to "leave it" when there are novel smells available to him and he digs in his heels upon hearing the cue and refuses to disengage; a dog is asked to calmly walk with the owner while friendly people wave and gesture toward the dog from a short distance but he quickly moves toward the friendly people.

In these situations, a dog may display stress signs or even complete avoidance to do what is asked, more or less conveying to us "Like hell I will do XYZ!". He may hear the cue and feel geared up for a fight because of the intense frustration experienced during training. If pushed too quickly to display full stimulus control in these situations, the dog may associate the task/activity itself with frustration, thereby becoming a poisoned cue. Positive trainers can deliver punishment and thus poison cues without even realizing it.

Trainers may think they are only training the dog to perform XYZ, but do not ever forget that the most important part of that training is the attached conditioned emotional response that will influence a dog's motivation to perform the behavior. High drive, easily frustrated dogs may benefit from a slow approach focused on helping him navigate which rewarding behaviors/stimuli are available to him at any moment instead of a focus on just stopping him from drifting outside the desired activity. If we attempt to explore a situation from the perspective of an individual dog we identify better ways to more effectively address issues like stimulus control without poisoning cues and creating frustration in our relationships.


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Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc (in Operations Management) is a fully certified dog behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). She believes the foundation of a good cross-species relationship is understanding the needs and normal behavior patterns of each dog as an individual, as he/she was bred to be. She enjoys helping humans and dogs communicate more effectively to create brilliant relationships with joy, purpose, and fulfillment for all species involved. She offers private consulting for serious dog behavior issues, obedience/manners, and agility training. Eileen developed a unique online course to help pet parents and trainers develop reliable snake avoidance behavior off-leash through positive reinforcement techniques. These techniques have been applied by trainers worldwide to teach dogs reliable avoidance of dangerous environmental hazards and off-leash property boundaries. She lives on a small ranch in Las Vegas, Nevada with her husband and their Nederlandse Kooikerhondjes.

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