Stimulus Control and the Do Nots


As I’ve talked about before, cues are powerful only if we can get them under stimulus control. (What is stimulus control?) The animal must be able to distinguish between a variety of different cues, know which behavior goes with which cue and know not to perform the behaviors unless the cue is given.

I’ve been reading Karen Pryor’s book recounting her experiences training dolphins, which includes a long description of these concepts. The first cue she taught the park’s spinner dolphins (stenella attenuata) was a cue to spin. Then, she taught a second behavior (porpoising) and introduced a cue for it. But, whenever she gave the cue for porpoising, the dolphins would spin. It took careful training to teach the animals to associate each behavior with a separate cue.

The animals had learned to spin on cue, and not to spin of cue. Now they had to learn to porpoise on cue and not to porpoise off cue, and also not to spin on the porpoising cue and not to porpoise on the spin cue. Training the do nots was fully as important as training the do’s. I have seen many a dog and horse trainer overlook this fundamental fact. You do not have full control over the behavior just because you can order it up when you want it, you must also make sure it is no longer offered spontaneously when you did not ask for it. The army sergeant whose platoon will advance under fire when he tells them to is still in a bad way if they may sometimes advance when he didn’t tell them to. In fact a primary function of drill teams and marching exercises and so on is not only to bring specific behavior under stimulus control, but also to establish a pattern, a habit, a skill, even, of responding on cue and not responding in the absence of the cue.

Porpoises can generalize (so can many, many animals). By the time our group had learned to spin reliably on the spin cue and to porpoise on the porpoising cue, they had also learned that “cues mean do something,” “no cue means do nothing,” and “different cues mean do different things.”

It took days and days to teach the spinners the first cue, and many session to get the second cue down pat. The third cue, a sound for the lobtailing behavior, was pretty well established in a morning. The animals had become “sophisticated” about cues; from now on it became much easier to teach those individuals not only underwater sound cues but hand signals or any other kind of command.

A good trainer helps an animal learn behaviors and cues. A great trainer really helps an animal learn how to learn. Once animals learn the rules of the game for earning reinforcement, training can progress much more rapidly. However, this requires the trainer to know the animal, have a plan, and be able to set the animal up for success.

Some behaviors can be much harder to put on cue than others. Are there any particular behaviors that you’ve found have been hard to put under stimulus control when training an animal?

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