Don't Be Afraid To Change The Cue: Biggest Lesson Learned in the "Spanish Experiment" | Exploits of an Amateur Dog Trainer: Blog Edition

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Don't Be Afraid To Change The Cue: Biggest Lesson Learned in the "Spanish Experiment"

A cue is simply the signal the dog will key on to trigger a behavior. I say signal instead of sound or word because dogs pick up cues from their whole environment. A scent on the ground, a bird in the field, a piece of ham hitting the floor, all these things can trigger behaviors, and as such are cues, often termed "environmental cues". They are not, per se, from the human to the dog, but from the world to the dog. That said, humans can use them too. Something hitting the floor could be a cue for the dog to "leave it". An open door could be a cue for the dog to close it, or go through it.

Doing things like that can also help the dog navigate his environment independently. Some might not want that, but I do - I think Wally knowing what to do just by seeing me do something or seeing something that "needs to be done" and doing it is an awesome sight.

The type of cues most of us are familiar with are the ones we deliberately say or signal. Like "sit", or the palm moving down to signal "lie down", these cues come from a human to the dog. We tend to understand these if only to say it as "telling the dog what to do."

So why change them?

Reasons to change your cue:
  1. Poisoning - A "poisoned" cue is one that the dog gets an adverse emotion upon hearing it due to being punished/corrected for doing what he was taught to do in response to that cue. For example, if I was mad at Wally, gave the recall cue, then proceeded to punish him, I would be poisoning my recall cue. In his mind, I just punished him for doing what I taught him to do. If this continues, he will either continue to do the recall on cue, but be hesitant and scared or he'll form a new association which tells him recall cue = "I'm in deep %&*(# and need to stay away from him!"

  2. Confusion - Sometimes, dogs get confused during training. Sometimes we apply the cue too early in the process and the dog is trying to figure out the behavior, attach the cue, and form a connection. If we attach too early, the picture in his mind can get garbled and the cue then triggers this garbled up but kinda-sorta-maybe-somewhere-in-there-correct response. Sometimes the best way to attack confusion is to work back up to fix the problems and attach a new cue to it. This will give him a clear picture of the new cue, and can improve performance. This is what the Spanish words really did for us. I re-shaped the behavior of opening the door and attached "abres" to it.

  3. Inconsistent Delivery - Sometimes, we just pick things we can't repeat. A hand signal we can't get right, or close enough, for the dog to understand consistently. A sound we can't repeatedly make, such as a word the syllables get squeezed or left out ("come here" vs "com'ere", it could be as if you made two different sounds and the dog is like "whaa?") or something like snapping fingers or whistling at a certain pitch/way. Teaching a new, repeatable cue for that behavior can be the only thing that's really needed as any errors/attempts by the dog are just his way of trying to deduce what your signal means.

  4. Sound Mixups - Personal example time: I had taught Wally "downstairs" to send guessed it...down the stairs. Then, I wanted to teach him to lie down on cue. So, naturally, I pick "down". So here we are in the middle of the playground, and I say "down!" and Wally looks around and back at me like, "Are you sure?". Of course, I say "down!" and try to get all encouraging, and Wally started moving around, looking for something. Guess what he was looking for? Stairs. "Down" and "Downstairs" sounded way too much alike for him. When I changed to "lie down", he got it almost immediately!

  5. Ambiguous Situations - Another one I've been guilty of a lot (I've been guilty of all of these at one point or another!). Another personal example. Wally (appeared to be) good at closing doors just by seeing them open. An attempt at teaching an environmental cue. So I open the door to the basement. He waits for me to say something - and when I don't, he just picked a behavior (he went down the stairs). I was like "um...what?" and he came back. So I waited again - and he went down again. Turns out, when I open the door for him to go downstairs, he was waiting for the "downstairs" cue, and when I didn't give it, he thought he was just supposed to go ahead. I wanted him to close the door. Oops.

Some Ways To Change Cues

Just some ways I changed some cues I give to Wally:

  1. Change the sound - I went from "down" to "lie down", from "upstairs" to "arriba", from "open the door" to "abres", from one loud clap to three rapid claps for non-verbal recall. All of these changes helped him with the attached behavior.

  2. Change the type of cue - If a hand signal isn't working, try a verbal one. If words down work, try something like clapping or using a whistle (remember to be pick something where you can be consistent in delivery!). Perhaps go to environmental to induce the behavior, and then you can attach another signal to it.

  3. Simplify the cue - For a hand/body signal, a simpler gesture could let the dog key on it easier and then execute the desired behavior. For environmental cues, this would involve removing as much ambiguity as possible so that the answer almost suggests itself (especially early in the teaching process), for verbal/sound cues, a simpler sound (including within the cue itself) could be all the dog needs to really understand what you're talking about.

And of course, you can mix and match as need and circumstance dictate.

Hopefully, this gave a little insight on cues and why changing them can be a good idea and perhaps the best way to solve the problems that arise in teaching and getting behaviors.