This is the fourth article in a series designed to bring the nuts and bolts of dog training directly to dog owners so you can work with your dog at home. Our past articles have explained the laws of behavior, how to change behavior, and how to get your dog to do the right thing. Logically, our next article covers how to get your dog to do what want when you want it.
Cues are our focus in this article. Cues are the key to getting your dog to do what you want, when you want. It’s how you label behaviors, and – once labeled – you can ask for (and get!) them whenever you want. Sounds cool, yeah? We did a video and article on cues not too long ago, but didn’t go into this depth — it’s a good overview.
What’s a cue?
Cues make all the difference in the world. Cues are how we tell our dogs how they can produce a favorable outcome. Back in the day, people used the word “command” when talking about dog training. That word doesn’t really fit into today’s well-developed training system. We aren’t saying to our dogs “Sit. OR ELSE.” We’re saying: “I’m giving you the chance to earn a goodie. Sitting now will guarantee you will be reinforced.” The difference may seem slight at first, but as the ripples go across the water, they get more pronounced. A cooperative dog is much more reliable than a dominated dog. (Applies to people, too!)
Why are cues important?
Imagine that you’ve got a dog who can do loads of things. He can sit, down, come when called, stay, roll over, speak, crawl, high five, play dead – you name it, he can do it! That’s half the battle: it’s what trainers call “getting the behavior on the dog.” Most dog owners can get that piece of the puzzle – getting the behavior on the dog. But where most people fall down is getting the behavior to happen when (and only when) you ask for it.
Cues are the solution to getting a handle on the “shake” behavior so your dog isn’t hitting you with paw every time he wants a treat. It’s how you get your dog to “speak” only when you ask for it. It’s how we get the service dogs to get something out of the refrigerator only when we ask. Can you imagine teaching the dog only how to do the behavior and then not finding a way to ask for it?! Nightmares, it gives me nightmares!
How many dogs have you seen who will run through their entire repertoire of behaviors. They don’t necessarily listen to what you’re asking for, they’re just spitting out behaviors until you click and feed them. How frustrating must that be for the dog?! Not to mention inconvenient and inefficient for us, the people.
Here’s a human example that might better illustrate the point. Your boss doesn’t tell you what he wants you to do when you come into the office. He just lets you do all the different tasks your job encompasses until you hit upon the right one. He then tells you
Cue types. There are lots of different types of cues. The ones most of us are familiar with are words (verbal) and hand signal (visual). Yes, those are the most common, but there are lots more! A cue is anything your dog can perceive. Dogs can perceive smell (this is how a diabetic alert dog does his job – he sniffs the bodies production of acidic ketones) and then perform a specific behavior (dog bumps his nose into person’s leg, indicating a change in blood sugar). Dogs also perceive sounds (other than your voice). Anyone’s dog bark in response to the doorbell? That doorbell is a cue for the dog! Touch can be a cue, too. Some dogs, if touched lightly on the shoulder, move over a step.
Cues in (your) real life.
Visual: Stoplight – red means stop, green means go. Signs – “Closed” means the doors are locked, “Open” means the doors are unlocked.
Auditory: Telephone ringing – someone’s calling you. Microwave beeping – food is done.
Smell: Smell of smoke – check the oven! Smell of bread: salivate, get butter out of fridge, etc.
Think of all the things you do in your life and why you do them. Most of them are cued in one way or another. It’s fascinating to realize how much we do depends on cues from either people or the environment.
- Simple cues are the best (one word, one hand signal, etc.)
- Pick one type of cue (verbal or visual or smell, etc.)
- Give the cue once (just once, this is so hard!)
- Make sure everyone in the family (dog walkers, too!) uses the same cue
- If you don’t ask for a behavior, you don’t pay for it
Here’s a little more on that last bullet point. Sometimes people say “But he’s sitting! That’s good!” Yes, sitting is good. But it’s good only if you’ve asked for it. Confused? Here’s an example to clear things up: A landscape service cuts your lawn by mistake – they read the address wrong and should’ve cut your neighbor’s lawn — but they still want to be paid because “well, we did the job.” If you pay them, they might come back next week – you’re an easy source of $120 each week! But if you tell them, “thanks so much, I’m very appreciative that you cut my lawn, but I didn’t ask you to do the job, therefore I’m not going to pay you,” they won’t be back next week. If you don’t ask for the behavior, you don’t pay it. Otherwise, the cue means nothing.
How to add a cue.
If you’re teaching a new behavior, adding a cue is really simple. First, you shape or capture the behavior (See Dog Training 301 for exactly how to do that). Once the dog is volunteering the behavior willingly, then it’s time to add the cue.
Timing is important. You want to be willing to bet $100 that the dog will volunteer the behavior before you start adding the cue. Let’s say you’ve clicked and reinforced your dog for offerin
g his paw and he’s always offering that behavior now. Good! The behavior is now predictable. We love predictable. Predictable lets us add the cue (word, gesture, whatever) immediately before the behavior is going to happen. We’re giving the cue because the behavior is about to happen, not to make the behavior happen in the beginning.
After 15 – 20 trials where you give the cue immediately before the behavior (and you’ve clicked and reinforced the dog for doing the behavior), begin to back the cue out of the sequence a bit. For instance, if you’re working on your dog’s “down” behavior, you’d begin by giving the cue right as the dog starts to lie down. Then, after 15 – 20 repetitions, you’d give your cue a second before the dog begins to lie down, clicking and reinforcing all the correct behaviors.
If the dog volunteers the behavior before you’re able to give the cue, ignore the behavior. Eventually, we need the dog to notice the cue and offer the behavior because of the cue, not simply volunteer the cue. By ignoring uncued behaviors, we’re helping the dog understand the value of the cue, of the “ask.”
Your homework: Take a look at the cues you already have in place.
Note which behaviors are “on cue” and which behaviors are still simply volunteered. Also how many behaviors have more than one cue (you’re moving and talking, for instance)? You’ll need that for next month’s article which will detail how to clean up your cues – the cleaner your cues, the cleaner (more accurate, consistent, reliable) your dog’s behavior will be!