Even the most motivated dog will not perform a cue at times. Have you ever wondered why? Some trainers think it’s because they’re dog is “stubborn” or “blowing them off,” but if we consider Kathy’s analogy of how a cue is like a green traffic light, it becomes clear that there are lots of other reasons. Quick: if you’re at a stoplight that turns green, why might you choose not to go?
Kathy identified 10 different reasons, and while I can’t list them all here (hey- I have to give you some incentive to go to one of her seminars, right?), here’s a few: Sometimes, you can’t see the signal. This time of year, the sun is rising as I’m driving to work, and it’s so bright that I literally can’t see the traffic light. Other times, it’s not safe to go, like when a car runs a red light in the other direction. Maybe there’s something in your way, like a car broken down in front of you, or heck, maybe it’s your car that’s stalled. There are tons of reasons you might not go when you see the cue- how many more can you think of? Because the same is true for our dogs, too, which is why Kathy presented her four cue tips to improve the odds that they will be able to respond when we ask them to.
Cue tip #1: Make each cue salient.
This means that every cue should leap out from the background of human blabbering or extraneous body movements. We tend to be very noisy when we train and cue our dogs, whether it’s excessive chattering or just moving our body around a lot. Shifts in weight or even where we’re looking can confuse our dogs. Make it obvious what's a cue by reducing the background noise. Be quiet and remain still.
Cue tip #2: Make each cue distinct.
Words should sound different from other cue words, and hand signals should look different from other nonverbal cues. Think about how similar “down” and “bow” sound, even to the human ear. How difficult must it be for our dogs to tell them apart? Humans tend to choose cues that are easy for us to remember, but is that fair to the dog? Create a cue dictionary, and when you’re ready to name a new behavior, consider if the new cue is distinct.
Cue tip #3: Give each cue consistently.
Use the same word, said in the same inflection, with the same tone and intensity. Make your gestures and body language the same. And for heaven’s sake, make sure that each family member uses the same cues you do!
Cue tip #4: Minimize the use of compound cues.
This means that you avoid using both a spoken word and a hand signal at the same time. There are two reasons for this. First, it is possible that your dog will decide that only one cue is relevant, and thus will block out the other one. If you then try to use that other cue, it will fail, because the dog has learned to ignore that as background noise. On the other hand, your dog might learn that the word and the signal together are the cue- he learns it as one cue instead of two separate ones. If that happens, you’ll always have to give both in order to get the response, which is like needing two keys to unlock a door. What a pain!
Once you’ve thought through what your cue is going to be, it’s time to add it. Remember that you always always always get the behavior first. If you add the cue too soon, you’ll run the risk of attaching it to a substandard behavior. Once the dog is offering the behavior correctly and regularly, you’re ready! However, you shouldn’t wreck that awesome cue you’ve spent time picking out by giving it when the behavior won’t happen. It is up to you as the trainer to only give the cue when you’re willing to bet $100 that your dog is going to do the behavior in the next 1-2 seconds.
The easiest way to do this is to get the dog offering the behavior like clockwork, one repetition every 5 to 10 seconds. That makes it easy for you to bet when he’s about to do it, and thus easy to add the cue. You can also become astute at observing the small muscle movements that predict he’s going to do the behavior, but that’s much harder, and typically slower.
Would you be willing to bet $100 that this dog
is going to target the frisbee in the next few seconds?
Here’s Kathy’s five steps to adding a cue:
- Click and treat the behavior a few times without giving the cue. This gets your dog in the behavior-offering-groove.
- Once your dog is offering the behavior in a rhythmic/predictable way, give the cue just before you think it’s going to happen. Do this several times.
- Then do nothing. Don’t cue the behavior. Your dog will likely offer the behavior anyway. Do not click and treat. (Also, don’t be alarmed if your dog has an extinction burst. He doesn’t realize that you didn’t click because of the absence of a cue; he probably thinks you just didn’t see him do the behavior.)
- Wait until your dog pauses (probably to give you a “what the heck? Why aren’t you clicking me?” look). In that moment, give the cue, and click and treat when your dog responds. This reinforces the dog for waiting for you to give the cue.
- Take a break! This is a lot of thinking for your dog.
And that concludes Kathy's sessions on cues, and I really do have to apologize: As hard as I might try to summarize Kathy’s talks well, I know that I will never capture her enthusiasm and knowledge. There are also so many interesting stories and nuggets of off-topic gold that I just can't fit into a post! If you found anything in the last two posts useful or intriguing, please do yourself a favor and go to one of her seminars. She’s absolutely amazing. If you can't get to one of her seminars soon, don't worry- I have one more post coming up about her presentation on observation skills.