Control Is an Illusion: Stimulus Control without Frustration

“Good stimulus control is nothing more than true communication—honest, fair communication. It is the most complex, difficult, and elegant aspect of training with positive reinforcement.” - Karen Pryor


Stimulus control is not about how much control you have over your animal, but about how precisely you are able to communicate when reinforcement is available for a behavior and when it’s not. Stimulus control is also a reflection of overall dog and handler fluency at the moment the cues are learned. We’ve all seen or worked with dogs that fidget, pant, bark, and throw every behavior they’ve ever been clicked for when they are not quite sure what you want. These responses are not caused by over-arousal or the use of food in training, but by unclear criteria, unclear context cues, unhelpful defaults accidentally reinforced in past training sessions, and the resurgence of incomplete behaviors that were never fully put on cue to start.

The goal of this Session is to highlight the importance of stimulus control by looking at ways to refine how to teach it. Happily, the use of extinction is not necessary. There are far less frustrating methods to get behaviors on cue efficiently, as well as to make it clear exactly when we want our animals to offer behavior, and when we want them to wait. If you’ve ever struggled with a “frantic dog,” have a dog that frequently goes off course because fun obstacles keep trumping your directional cues, or have a dog that has a start on lots of behaviors that you now want to get on cue more reliably, this is the Session for you!

Sarah Owings

Sarah Owings is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA CTP). She specializes in learner-centric applications of behavioral principles that help transform the lives of fearful, shut-down, and over-the-top dogs—as well as the lives of the people who care for them. As an international speaker and regular contributor to online training forums, she is known for her innovative approaches to tough behavior problems and her compassionate and insightful teaching.

Sarah has written for Clean Run magazine on topics such as stimulus control, release cues, and toy-related cues. Her current passions include reframing concepts like “impulse control,” and encouraging trainers to embrace a philosophy of brave learning. Sarah is a member of the ClickerExpo faculty, an instructor for Cyber Scent Online, a tutor for Tromplo, and an advisor to the Glendale Humane Society in Los Angeles. She recently began teaching classes for Marin Humane in Novato and consults with their behavior team.

An avid nose work competitor, Sarah currently competing at both the Elite and Iron Dog levels with her Labrador retriever, Tucker. Tucker was the recipient of the Harry Award in 2015 and has the distinction of titling at each level of NACSW without a single miss. In Sniffing Dog Sports, he has won High in Trial in both Advanced and Excellent divisions and has earned a HIT at Iron Dog. Tucker's trained final response for nose work, a hover-freeze at source, was taught with a marker signal, following clicker training principles.