Science refers to a cue as a “discriminative stimulus” or S^D. But don’t get intimidated, because we can break this down (because I always break everything down).

Starting with dictionary definitions, what are the parts we are dealing with?

Stimulus  (noun): a thing or event that evokes a specific functional reaction an agent (as an environmental change) that directly influences the activity of a living organism or one of its parts (as by exciting a sensory organ or evoking muscular contraction or glandular secretion)

Discriminative (adjective) – Making distinctions.

So this really tells us a fair amount of what is happening. The Stimulus can be any agent, object, or event that the senses can pick up. And of course, our senses are picking up stimuli All The Time, but how does our brain know which are relevant and which can be safely ignored? This is where the discriminative part comes in. Particular stimuli are capable of making distinctions, or rather, allow our brain to distinguish between certain situations, and then know which neurons to fire and which feelings and actions to initiate.

So it comes down to relevance. How much information does the stimulus, or combination of stimuli, convey? The better the information, the more likely the brain is to attach it to an action. We pay attention to reliable information. Both dogs and humans!

The 4 Conditions of Stimulus Control

  • The behavior occurs immediately when the cue is given.
  • The behavior never occurs in the absence of the cue.
  • The behavior never occurs in response to some other cue.
  • No other behavior occurs in response to this cue

If you are having a communication problem, and you know there is no emotional problem (poisoned cue), check:

1. Is the cue really what you think it is? Could your dog be responding to some small unconscious movement in training that is then absent in competition?

2. Does the cue have sufficient reinforcement history for reliably predicting that behavior? (Matching law?)

3. Does the dog understand to wait for the cue in training? And then to do the behavior as soon as the cue is given?

4. Can the dog differentiate the cue from other known cues?

5. Can the dog differentiate the behavior from other known behaviors?

6. Are your cues maximally different?

Note: Inability to differentiate cues is a source of stress!