Thursday, April 7, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Kathy Sdao- What a Cue Can Do, Part 2

In my last post, we established that cues are important. They tell our dogs they should do a behavior. They help get all that crazy behavior-throwing under control. And trained positively, they can even act as reinforcers! Today, let’s discuss Kathy’s cue tips, as well as how to attach a cue to a behavior.

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:
  1. Click and treat the behavior a few times without giving the cue. This gets your dog in the behavior-offering-groove.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. Take a break! This is a lot of thinking for your dog.
This whole process should take no longer than 1 to 2 minutes, and you should repeat these steps as many times as you need to until your dog knows the cue. Then you can start testing the cue in other situations. If your dog doesn’t respond to the cue, don’t repeat it! Since cues can be reinforcing, repeating the cue reinforces not responding to the cue. Each time your dog learns a cue, it gets easier to subsequently teach him a new cue. This is good news, because teaching those first few cues can take a bit of time.

 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.


Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I am horrible at tip #4. I always have mulitple cues at one time, my body language, signal, and verbal. Usually though I find my verbal means nothing and the main cue is hand signal or body language +hand signal. Luckily I don't really care :)

And since I also don't care about stimulus control I never actively work on steps 3-4 with my dogs. However at work it is very important for the hearing dogs so I speed it along by rewarding the lack of response without the cue.

I also find it VERY interesting that she says the exact opposite from Ian Dunbar about repeating cues :) I can totally see her side about repeating as a reinforcer. In agility so many dogs learn to creep to the end when the handler cues touch, wait with 4 feet on, handler cue touch again, then dog moves into their 2o2o. Happens over and over again. That being said I don't think repeating a cue is a reinforcer in most situations.

Crystal said...

I suck at, oh, all of them. LOL

Seriously, though, 4 is hard for me, too. Maisy knows like nothing on a verbal, except maybe "come," but only if I use a certain tone.

So far as cues as reinforcers... I'm still thinking that through. Expect another post on that whole topic soon! But let me just say I'd LOVE to hear Ian and Kathy discuss the concept of repeating cues. I think that would be an amazing conversation.

Catalina said...

Perfect timing with this post. I have been thinking about trying a cue with one of Tibby's tricks, but I think I'll wait.
Great info!

Dawn said...

I suck at waiting to use a cue until the behavior is there. I need someone to duct tape my mouth.

Ninso said...

Elo has really made me learn to do all 4 cue tips. He has 4 behaviors on a verbal cue now (and he can do all of them from any position), and very close to a 5th!

For the 5 steps to adding a cue . . . I was with you until step 4. That is how I usually do it. But what are you supposed to do if your dog does not give you the behavior after the cue on Step 4?

Crystal said...

Dawn, I think that can be arranged...

Ninso, specifically in regards to step 4, you're still trying to time that cue so that you're pretty darn sure your dog is going to do the behavior. Kathy said that pause you're looking for is probably going to be very short- like a second- which also helps stack the deck in your favor.

Ninso said...

Ah, that makes sense.

Crystal said...

I should have been more clear in the first place. :)

Karla said...

Thanks...very clear and concise, and perfect timing as I have turned over a new become precise and complete in my training process instead of sloppy and accepting my "that's good enough" efforts. My dogs appreciate the new me, too!