What do we mean when we talk about stimulus control in dogs? Well, in short, canine behaviors are under stimulus control when there is an increased possibility that the behavior (ie. barking, jumping, biting, nipping, etc) will occur as a result of a specific antecedent stimulus. But what does all of this actually mean? Let's use the example of a dog barking every time the doorbell rings. In order to understand how to interrupt and change any behavior under stimulus control, we have to understand what we're dealing with on a conceptual level.
First, a few definitions to get the ball rolling.
Behavior: the way in which an animal or person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus. Example: a dog barking (behavior) every time someone knocks on the door/rings a doorbell.
Okay, great. But what's a stimulus?
Stimulus: a thing that rouses energy or activity in someone or something: a spur or incentive. Example: the ring of the doorbell.
Makes sense, so far. What's an antecedent?
Antecedent: preceding in time or order; previous or preexisting. Example: the doorbell rings before the dog begins to bark.
When we put this all together, we begin to form a picture of what we mean by stimulus control in relation to behavior. In this case, it indicates that the presence of the antecedent stimulus (ie. the doorbell) results in an increased likelihood of a particular behavior (barking). The behavior (barking) is therefore under the control of the antecedent stimulus (doorbell).
Now it starts to come together. If you're wondering why you cannot for the life of you to get your dog to listen to you once he's started barking at the door, no matter how many times you tell him "Quiet!", you now understand why. It's because the barking is under the control of the doorbell, not you, and certainly not under the control of your dog. It has nothing to do with your dog being a 'jerk', being 'disobedient', or any other adjective you can think of. It means he's lost control.
And so what do we do when our dog has lost control?
1. Figure out what is controlling the behavior.
2. Identify the unwanted behavior itself.
3. Determine the existing consequence.
I'd like to get deeper into what I mean by "3". Points "1" and "2" are pretty straightforward, but what on earth do I mean by "3", consequences? Well, consequences can look like pretty much anything. Maybe you yell at the dog. Maybe you clap your hands together, or stomp your foot. Maybe you even grab your dog by his collar and haul him away from the door. Whatever your response is, that's the consequence.
With all of this in mind, here's where things get interesting. If we long to control our dogs in the presence of these stimuli, we must begin to talk about antecedent control.
Some forms of antecedent control remain outside a handler or pet owner's direct influence (e.g., genetic and biological factors such as breed-typical tendencies, inherited traits, and some behavioral thresholds). On the other hand, some instances of antecedent control are under the direct influence of the dog owner or handler. Let's use the doorbell as an example. The doorbell is both in and out of our control. If we're very clever, we can disable the doorbell to put it firmly under our control, disallowing the antecedent stimulus altogether. But as we know, that does nothing to change the behavior itself.
Better is if we lower the volume of the doorbell to a level at which the dog is non-reactive, desensitizing our canine companions to it's sound and frequency. In this way, we can build up the dog's tolerance to the doorbell, and all the while, classically condition our dog's to offer an alternative, incompatible behavior than the barking we all know and, in most cases, do not love!
It is only via the thorough analysis and understanding of our dog's behaviors that we can begin to modify them. By utilizing these three aspects of antecedent control with your dog, you can safely, effectively. and swiftly manage the behaviors you do not want. create the behaviors you do, and live happily and engaged with your canine companion for years to come.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Pet Services and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA)