It’s often that I hear from new clients “my dog knows their commands, but I want them to know more commands.” At this point in the conversation I might take the opportunity to talk about “commands” vs “cues”. Some people might think there is no difference, but really there is, and that difference doesn’t lay in the semantics so much as the in the mindset behind it. The definition of a command is to “give an authoritative order” or “to have control or authority over”. I follow a humane and caring approach to training, so this mindset is not part of my training style and I do my best to teach my human clients the same concepts and in the same manner. Additionally, the use of “commands” has been typically associated with compulsion training and the use of aversive tools such as choke, prong and shock collars. As a positive reinforcement dog trainer, these tools are not part of my tool box, if the dog makes a mistake or doesn’t get it right, they simply don’t get rewarded, but do get to try again. So, while I may adhere to some strict teaching mechanics and learning principals, I strive during every training session to keep learning fun for my canine clients, therefore dominance and control over them is not part of the experience. It is because of this philosophy my human students never hear the word “command” come out of my mouth, because my mindset is quite opposite.
Teaching and Cues:
When we teach a dog a new skill or behavior, we can do so through a few avenues:
- the process of luring, where we use food to lure the dog into a position
- the process of capturing, where we reinforce a behavior that is offered or occurs naturally
- the process of shaping, where we reinforce all the tiny steps that it takes to get to the finished behavior
As previously mentioned one the of the easiest behaviors to capture is a sit, because dogs are always plopping into a sit in front of us, beside us and behind us. It is a natural physical action that dogs are always doing whether we are asking them to or not. If we acknowledge and reward that sit with the right timing and consistency, the dog will offer that behavior to us when we ask. Because dogs do what works and always have their eye on the prize, it is easy to reinforce any behavior a dog performs, even the ones we don’t want (like jumping up), but that is a whole other blog post.
Once a dog has learned a behavior and we have added in the cue, we know we have done everything correctly, 1) built a strong association between the behavior and the cue and 2) have the behavior under stimulus control if:
- the dog performs the behavior promptly the first time we ask
- the dog doesn’t offer the behavior when we aren’t asking for it
- the dog isn’t offering us an alternative behavior in hopes of earning a treat
- the dog doesn’t offer the behavior in response to another cued behavior
Clean Cues vs Dirty Cues:
The first behavior I teach any dog is attention or eye contact, for it is the mother of all behavior. If you can’t get your dog to pay attention to you, at the very least your training will be very difficult and you will have inconsistent results. Eye contact also has many practical advantages when training other skills to a dog like loose leash walking for instance. I once trained one of my dogs to release from a wait at the food bowl with strictly my eye movement! Generally, the easiest way to teach eye contact is through the capturing technique. Clients typically pick an easy one word cue such as “look”, “focus” “eyes-here” etc., and eventually put the eye contact under stimulus control. Often my clients will ask me why can’t I just say their name to get their attention? And I tell them…” because your dog’s name is their name, it is not a cue for attention”. Then I generally hear, “but they always look at me when I say their name?” And I ask…
Do they? Really? If your dog’s attention is focused on something else, like a bird or squirrel or even another dog, do they turn and look at you when you call their name? Probably not every single time, and this is one reason why we ought not use a dog’s name to get their attention. The other reason is quite simple, you are likely saying your dog’s several times a day; we talk to our dogs more than we are even probably aware. Next time you are home with your dog take note…you might be surprised. And last but certainly not least, we choose our dog’s names often because of their personality, physical characteristics, geographic location, or circumstances, etc. The reasons are vast, endless and can be deeply personal. When my four-month-old female pit bull came into my life, I was grief stricken over the loss of a dog that I loved deeply, only a few months earlier. This new puppy had been living with a drug addict in a hotel, and would disappear leaving the puppy confined in a crate without food, water or a place to toilet, for days at a time. This puppy needed to be rescued, and so did my heart. I named her Mercy, because I felt that the universe had shown us mercy by bringing us together. For me her name is sacred with deep meaning, but I am always saying it randomly in silly little songs I sing to her, or when I ask her questions like she is going to answer me (yes, we trainers do these things too), she hears it so much that she sometimes ignores me. Her name, is her name, it is not a cue for attention. Mercy is my beautiful, goofy, imperfect dog, and when I say the cue “look-at-me” she knows that it means [I expect you to be front and center staring directly into my eyes, regardless of the moth flying around the kitchen, because now is important that I have your attention]. It is never “Mercy…look-at-me”, just plain “look-at-me”. When we preface a “cue” with the dog’s name, we not only give the dog multiple names, (“Mercy-sit”, “Mercy-come) we create a” dirty” cue. This is a training mistake that I commonly see owners and trainers alike making. It dilutes the cue and it is in my professional opinion sloppy training. Cues need to be “clean” one word, or two words easily spoken (as one), not wishy washy “blah blah blah-look-at-me”, “blah, blah, blah-sit”, “blah, blah, blah-come”. When you have gone to the painstaking work of teaching a behavior and putting under stimulus control (adding the cue), that cue should be treated as a sacred word. Period. Clean cues equal consistent communication between you and your dog, and consistent results in performance.
We know that cues can be verbal or hand gestures, but cues can also be the presentation of an object, a scent, sound or touch. A cue can also be an association with something, for instance my dog comes running to me every time she hears me turn on the blow dryer, because since she was a puppy she has loved to have her butt blow dried and she has built an incredibly strong association to the sound. She has also built a strong association with coming in from outside and gives me a lovely auto sit the moment we reach the kitchen counter, which has become her cue.
When we give a cue to our dog we are asking them to do something, but sometimes they seemingly all-of-a-sudden won’t. And a dog owner might think that their dog is being stubborn, when in fact what they might have is a poisoned cue. In Karen Pryor’s book “Reaching the Animal Mind” she describes that a poisoned cue occurs when a dog makes an association between unpleasant things and the cue. These unpleasant associations then cause the dog either hesitate to perform the behavior we have asked of them, or not do it at all. But what we think is unpleasant and what the dog thinks is unpleasant are often different. A slight tug on the leash, pulling on our dog’s collar, leaning over the dog can all feel unpleasant enough to poison a cue. But also, unexpected things can occur as well…case in point. I was working with one of my dogs who had learned a beautiful spin behavior. While in the training room, at the exact moment I asked for the behavior a picture fell off the wall. What were the odds? We were both startled and I will never forget my dog freezing mid spin and looking at me stunned. What happened? You guessed it. He never responded to that cue again. The good news is that poisoned cues can be fixed by re-teaching the behavior and putting it on a new cue, which is exactly what we did.
Proofing for Fluency - The Three D’s: Distraction, Distance, Duration:
When I think about fluency I think about language, I have worked with many people for whom English has been their second language. For me English is my first and only language. I can speak it, read and write it; I am considered “fluent” in English (although my spell check would tell you otherwise), but for some of my co-workers English has not been their first language or even their second and they would not be considered fluent. A common thing I hear from new clients is “my dog will do this or that, but not consistently” or “he will sit in the living room and sometimes the kitchen, but I can never get him to sit in the back yard”. My question at that point usually is “did you train the behavior in the kitchen or in the back yard?” And generally, the answer is no. Once we teach a dog a new skill, we should be teaching it across all environments. This means every room of the house, because each room is new environment and the new space is a distraction in and of itself. In the training process, we intentionally add in distractions beginning with low level (easy), mid-level (slightly more difficult) and high-level distractions (difficult), as well as outside in the back yard, front yard and side yard if you have one. We do this to ensure the dog has generalized the new skills. Life is filled with distractions, so we add distractions into the training process to ensure that the dog will perform the behavior when you ask him to, even though you might be wearing a Kentucky Derby hat and sun glasses, blowing colossal bubbles with your bubblegum, while the TV is blaring and your bouncing a basketball. I’m not sure I could do all that at one time, but you get the idea. If you put your dog on a ‘sit-stay’ and his favorite person walks into the room, you are still going to want him to hold in his sit-stay position until given his release cue. Then we build duration, which is the length of time the dog can perform the behavior. And we add in distance, this is when you ask your dog to perform a behavior from several feet away. Although, one does not necessarily need to precede the other, and can be trained separately, often, we can build distance and duration together at the same time.
A Word About Reinforcers and Rewards
You wouldn’t work for free so neither should your dog. If your boss asked you to work over your normally scheduled 40-hour Monday through Friday work week on Saturday and Sunday, but offered you the same rate of pay, you might not be as inclined to sacrifice your weekend with no increased incentive. It kind of works the same for your dog. When training with reinforcers the dog (not us) is the one who determines what is reinforcing to them, some dogs are not food motivated at all and would prefer access to something or the opportunity to play with a particular toy. Although I come to a training session with a bait bag filled with tasty chicken liver that all my other clients love, I may find that your dog doesn’t like chicken liver, and maybe doesn’t like chicken at all, but loves turkey. When we are training a new behavior, or increasing the difficultly of the behavior (like adding in duration and distance as mentioned above), we may want to use a super high value reward. One of my dogs loves Wasabi Peas, Tuna and cardboard Paper Towel tubes, and those things are reserved just for training new skills or when adding in more difficulty to a behavior she has learned. She gets these things at no other time. Why? Because they are really-high value to her, and giving them to her all the time might reduce that value. Will she work for kibble? Sure! She will work for lettuce, because she is really food driven, but she gets kibble every day and finds Cheez-It® crackers far more motivating for easy skills and things she already knows. Identifying the right reinforcer for your dog when it comes to training is as important as the training itself. Don’t underestimate this part of your training.
Whether you are training a new dog (or old), it can be an arduous task for some folks and often I hear from clients how much harder it is than they thought it would be. While some behaviors are difficult to un-teach dogs, breaking human behavior patterns that have developed in response to dog unwanted dog behavior can be the real challenge to change. Honestly training doesn’t have to be hard, you just need a good teacher, a good plan and a willingness to commit to the work and the process. Always remember you get out of training, what you put into it.
Next Month: Paired cues, Modified cues and Behavior chains
About the Author
Lee Desmarais is a Karen Pryor Academy Professional Dog Training graduate who has over 20 years’ experience dog training. Lee uses only positive based training approaches, that are scientifically proven techniques. Lee adheres to the Hierarchy of Dog Needs principles and believes that the use of fear, intimidation or coercion is not necessary if you have good training skills.
Photo credit to model and client Cal aka "Calzoni-Macaroni" he owns the hearts of Greg and Liz.