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, KPA CTP, is passionate about reaching challenging learners. She specializes in using behavioral science to help transform the lives of fearful, shut-down, and over-the-top dogs. As the owner of Bridges Dog Training, and a regular contributor to online training forums, Sarah is known for her innovative approaches to tough behavior problems and for her compassionate and insightful teaching. She serves as a faculty member at ClickerExpo, an instructor for Karen Pryor Academy, and an advisor to the Glendale Humane Society in Los Angeles. Sarah is a regular contributor to Clean Run Magazine on topics such as stimulus control, release cues, and toy-related cues. She is also an avid Nose Work competitor, and, with Helix Fairweather, co-teacher of Cyber Scent, an online foundation-skills course for scent detection taught with clicker training.