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Trainer’s Corner: Environmental Cues

What do the following situations have in common: a dog that begins ‘amped up’ behavior (running, jumping, pawing, barking) around 5:00 p.m. and a dog that walks to the cupboard and mumbles when you sit down to watch TV?

They are both situations where discriminative stimulus or environmental cues are at work. Cues for doing behaviors do not only come from us. They are everywhere in our pet’s world. Being aware of it is important when we talk about behavior change. 

A stimulus is simply a physical environmental event that affects or is capable of having a measurable effect on behavior. And discrimination is the tendency for learned behavior to occur in one situation but not in other situations. (Learning & Behavior, Paul Chance) Therefore, a change in the environment known as a discriminative stimulus becomes a cue for that behavior to be set into motion.  And, behaviors that are reinforced get repeated and strengthened—for the good and the bad.

How does this happen? Let’s look at these two examples:

On a pretty regular schedule, the one dog’s favorite person comes home around 5:00 p.m. That arrival is the highlight of that dog’s day so far. In an instant, the dog went from being the only living being around in hours to being greeted with attention, praise, play and even food. How awesome is that! So, the dog has learned from past experience what to expect around that time, along with the state of elevated heart rate and arousal. That general time frame then has become a cue to the dog to begin amping up to a heightened state of arousal around that time. 

In the other case, the dog has learned from past experience that when his person sits on the sofa to watch TV, that if the dog mumbles or paws at his person, he will get a bone or treat or attention. His person sitting on the sofa to watch TV has become a cue for the behaviors of mumbling and pawing. 

The time of day cue can be the culprit for other behaviors too that, without more careful observation, you may misinterpret. It could be that your dog has learned that at around 3:00 p.m. every day mail will be dropped from your door slot. Your dog may begin getting hyper-vigilant, pant, or pace mid-afternoon in anticipation of the expected mail drop. And, by the way, the site of the scary mail person might also have become a cue for barking.

What can you do if your dog has learned certain environmental events are cues for doing unwanted behavior? Well, for one, since you can predict under what circumstances that behavior is likely to occur, you can make some changes to prevent that behavior from being practiced. For the arrival scenario, you could come home at different times or have your dog behind a gate or in a crate when you get home so the jumping on you behavior cannot occur. You could also practice making your entrance less exciting to your dog. You could teach your dog alternative behaviors that you would like to see when you arrive home. 

If you know your dog will begin those attention seeking behaviors when you sit on the sofa, there are a number of choices. You could choose management and have your dog in a crate or behind a gate at that time. You could give your dog something else to do that your dog is interested in. You could teach your dog to go lay in his bed when you are on the sofa watching TV. (Do those things BEFORE your dog begins the unwanted behaviors or you may accidentally end up reinforcing the behaviors you want to stop.) You could teach your dog (in advance of your needing it at the time) a cue such as “Enough” that means attention is not available now.  

It is always important to make sure that your dog’s needs are being met in the day. Some need more exercise than others. Puppies have more chewing and sleeping needs. Help your dog to have acceptable choices for getting those needs met and that will contribute to a happy household.

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