We started a series in June to bring the nuts and bolts of dog training directly into your email box. Everyone who has a dog can improve his or her dog’s behavior. But sometimes, just getting started can be overwhelming. Or the first little speed bump you hit on your training road can be just enough for you to say “I’ll get back to this later.”
We want you to be successful from the beginning and have your training take off like a rocket ship! To that end, here’s our latest article in the series. Last month we talked about cues (which used to be referred to as “commands”). We’re taking a closer look at cues because this is where some people sort of fall off the “training wagon.”
We’re going to look in-depth at cueing: first, what makes a good cue; next, what does it mean when a behavior is “on cue?” Finally, how do you actually get a behavior on cue?
What’s a Good Cue?
What IS a cue, exactly? Let’s start there. A cue is anything the dog can perceive – a word, an action, something he can see, smell, or even the appearance of an object. Have you ever seen a dog that goes crazy when you pick up his leash? The leash is a cue: the appearance of the leash means a walk is imminent. You don’t have to say a word; the dog is ON IT. Walk! Walk! Walk! Let’s go! Walk!
You can use a word (like “sit”), a hand signal (hand spinning above dog’s head to get the dog to spin around), the presentation of something (a leash before going for a walk) – anything your dog will notice.
A good cue is simple – it should be just one of those things. A good cue isn’t the word “sit” and the hand signal given at the same time.
A good cue is consistent. It should look or sound the same every time. It doesn’t matter who is giving the cue to the dog. Take some time to talk about cues with your family. Make sure everyone is saying or doing the same thing all the time. If someone calls the dog by saying, “Come!” while others say “Come Here!” the dog’s response (coming when called) will go downhill over time because the cue lacks consistency.
What does it mean when we say a behavior is on cue, how can you tell if a behavior is on cue, and what the heck difference does it really make to you if your dog’s behaviors are on cue?
A cue is what tells a learner (most often in this article, I’m talking about your dog, but really, our lives are filled with cues, too) that the behavior he offers will work (or, in a training scenario, be reinforced). A cue is how you get control of all the behaviors your dog knows. In short: It’s the way you ask your dog to do something
So when a behavior is on cue, it means that you’ve identified for the dog the signal that means, “go do that behavior” and the dog understands the cue. Here’s an example: you ask your dog to sit and he offers a sit in response to your request.
If your dog throws out every behavior he knows when you hold a dog treat in your hand, those behaviors are probably not on cue. If they were, you could ask for a single behavior and get a single correct response. And when you think about it, wouldn’t that be a lot easier (and more fair)? I mean, would you like to do 15 things only to find out your boss only needed one thing done, but he let you go through all 15?! We wouldn’t dream of doing that to another person, but a dog doing it usually draws chuckles. We can fix this and make life a lot easier for you and your dog.
Aside from just being nice to your dog and making things clearer for your dog, cues strengthen your dog’s reliability. Do you ever wonder if your dog will come when you call? Having a clear and clean way to ask for that behavior (the cue!) is one of the building blocks to a strong, reliable, consistent come when called behavior. Without a good, clean cue, a good recall is impossible no matter how much you practice.
Put the Behavior On Cue
Now you know what makes a good cue, what an on cue behavior is, it’s time to get some of your dog’s behaviors on cue! Here’s how to teach your dog that your signals (the cues) matter.
- Set up a formal training session with your dog (clicker and treats). Click your dog a few times for doing the behavior to which you’d like to add the cue. (Just wait for the behavior to happen. Ignore any other behaviors that your dog volunteers. No talking. No “directing.”
- Once the behavior is predictable insert the cue just as the dog starts to do the behavior (say the word, or the hand signal, or otherwise insert the cue). Give the cue just once.
- At this point, you’re giving the cue because the dog is about to do the behavior, not to get the dog to do the behavior. You are pairing your cue with the behavior the dog is doing.
- Click and treat the dog when he does the behavior.
- Insert the cue again right as the dog offers the behavior.
- Click and treat the dog again when he does the behavior.
- After several repetitions, begin to back the cue out of the process by just half a second. In other words, give the cue about half a second before the dog does the behavior instead of giving the cue just as the behavior occurs.
- Click and treat every correct response to the cue.
If the dog offers another behavior or doesn’t do the behavior you cued, just wait. For example, don’t repeat the cue “sit, sit, sit.” Just say “sit” once.
Continue to systematically back the cue out of the process by giving the cue earlier and earlier.
If your dog ever waits or even pauses for a moment (doesn’t offer the behavior if you haven’t asked for it), click and treat that! Yes, click and treat your dog for doing nothing! Confused about that point? Here’s the quick and dirty explanation: you’re clicking the dog for waiting for the cue. So clicking him for not volunteering the behavior in the hopes of getting a treat from you, you’re actually reinforcing him for thinking!
Or, instead of clicking and treating your dog for pausing, go ahead and give him what he really wants – the cue (the opportunity to do the behavior to earn a click and treat). Your dog will very quickly see that the cue is really important and he’ll start to pay more attention to you (a nice side effect of teaching your dog cues).
Check Your Progress
When you think your dog has noticed the cue and understands to wait for it, instead of giving him the cue to do that behavior, give him the chance to do another behavior. So if you’ve been working on “sit” for instance, after working for about 3 minutes on just the sit, throw in a “down” cue. If your dog downs instead of sits, click and treat! He was paying attention! If he sits, simply ignore that behavior. Wait 2 – 3 seconds to see if he figures out that you asked for something different. If he doesn’t figure it out, take a few steps to reset him and start again (cue the “down”).
Ignore any uncued behaviors (behaviors that happen if you didn’t ask for them). If your dog gets clicked and treated whenever he offers the correct behavior (as opposed to only when asked for the behavior), the cue is meaningless to the dog.
Say the cue just once. This is often the hardest part of this for dog owners. They want to repeat the cue “down, down, down!” to get the dog to do the behavior, but what’s really happening is that the dog is getting a “muddy” version of the cue. The cue is “down.” Period. Say the word and then wait. And wait. And wait some more if necessary. Wait silently. When the dog does the behavior, click and treat! This silence and stillness helps the dog see the link between the cue and the behavior (and the reinforcer that comes from performing the behavior upon perceiving the cue).
Work on one cue and behavior within in a training session. The concept of cues may seem daunting to your dog, especially if he’s never had any reason to notice them in the past. After you introduce the cue to one behavior and your dog seems to catch on, go ahead and work on a different behavior.
Next month, we’ll finish up with cueing. Until then, work on getting two or three of your dog’s behaviors on cue!