The fabulous Sara and Layla demonstrate "breathe."
Believe it or not, Sara actually taught Layla to take a deep breath when cued.
Kathy’s session on developing cueing skills changed my life. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but it was possibly the best session I attended all weekend. I have to admit, I suck at getting behaviors on cue, so I knew going into it that this would be full of great information. Even so, I was not expecting to feel so devastated about my subpar skills. In a panic, I begged my way into her lab on cueing skills so I could see it in action. I'm glad I did!
In my last entry, we talked about how to get behaviors. That is the first job of a trainer, and despite my feelings to the contrary, Kathy said it is the most difficult part. Personally, I think getting the behavior itself is far more fun than the tedious process of getting the behavior on cue. This is probably why Maisy has virtually nothing on cue (at least not reliably). That’s not her fault, of course- as Kathy pointed out, the reliability of the dog reflects the reliability of the trainer.
Despite the not-fun-ness of it all, it’s important to develop reliable cues so that you can get the behavior you want, when you want it, and also so you aren’t getting the behavior when you don't want it. (This is also called "stimulus control.") Who hasn’t seen the clicker dog offering behaviors willy-nilly? It’s kind of exhausting of watch, and having one of those dogs myself, it is also kind of frustrating. Still, I created this monster, so I can’t get mad at her. It’s time to fix (um, okay, get) those cues!
Let’s start with some information on cues in general. Cues don’t make the dog do the behavior; astute readers will remember that in Kathy’s talk on shaping, she said consequences drive behavior. Those consequences- the reinforcers- provide the motivation for the dog to perform the behavior. Cues simply provide the clarity of “now would be a good time to try that behavior.”
Throughout her talk, Kathy compared the idea of cues to a green traffic light. If you’re sitting in a car at a green light, you don’t go because the light makes you, you go because you want to, and the green light is a cue that gives you permission. What’s more, you can’t go at a green light if you don’t know how to drive, so you always have to get the behavior first, and then attach the cue.
This is different from how people used to train. In the past, trainers would say a word like sit and then make the dog do it by physically manipulating or luring him into position. Kathy calls these words “commands,” which she distinguishes from “cues.” Commands carry an implicit threat: do it or I’ll make you. Cues are simply an opportunity; if the dog doesn't do the behavior, he won't be forced. However, he needs to do do it if he wants to earn reinforcement, and assuming the dog has been adequately reinforced in the past, he should be excited for that opportunity.
It is this last point that absolutely fascinated me. If cues are an opportunity to earn reinforcement, then they should be pretty awesome things, right? Trained well, a cue should be like a release word. They tell the dog, you no longer have to wait, you can do that behavior now, and when you do, I’ll click and treat you.
The cues therefore become reinforcing in and of themselves because they become what’s called a tertiary reinforcer. Primary reinforcers are things that the dog likes inherently. Dogs don’t need to be taught to like hot dogs, they just do. Secondary reinforcers are things that predict a primary reinforcer. Clicks or marker words tell the dog a piece of hot dog is coming through the process of classical conditioning. The tertiary reinforcer predicts the secondary reinforcer which predicts the primary reinforcer. The cue predicts a click which predicts a piece of hot dog. Cool, huh?
Anyone who wants their dog to do complex behaviors, or a chain of behaviors, will recognize the value in having a cue act as a reinforcer. Agility or obedience dogs often need to do a series of behaviors with no primary (food) reinforcer. Being able to reinforce a behavior simply by giving the cue for the next exercise or obstacle will help sustain motivation and ensure that the dog continues to perform over the long-term.
However, there is a catch- in order for a cue to act as a reinforcer, that cue must always predict a good thing. If you mix in corrections, the cue is then sometimes associated with unpleasant things and no longer acts as a reinforcer as a result. Therefore, Kathy said that training positively is not about fairness to the dog- it’s about giving yourself more tools. Losing a reinforcer by using punishment is a big price to pay.
Whew! Who knew there was so much to say about cues? But there’s so much that Kathy talked about them for 90 minutes, and then did two 90 minute labs about them! I only attended one of those labs, but in my next post, I’ll share her cue tips with you, as well as information about how to add a cue to a behavior. In the meantime, I can't wait to hear what you guys think. Have you ever used a cue as a reinforcer, or does this concept just blow your mind? Let me know!