The cue "go get it" is exciting, sure, but not because I conditioned it that way.
Well, yes. The cue allows the behavior to happen. Ask any newly-licensed sixteen-year-old: permission to borrow the car is incredibly reinforcing. I use cues this way all the time. When Maisy and I are out, if she walks nicely instead of dragging me towards a smelly fire hydrant, I'll give her the “go sniff” cue as a reward. Of course, that behavior- the sniffing- is not something I taught her to enjoy, and the cue is simply letting her do something she wants anyway... but it's still reinforcing.
Kathy was talking about so much more, though. She said that any cue, for any behavior can be reinforcing. This is a powerful concept because if we can make the cue for an obedience exercise reinforcing, we will be able to reward our dogs in the ring. Of course, that means the cue for a rather innocuous behavior, like sit or down, must be reinforcing, which is a bit harder to think about. I mean, sure, dogs like to sniff, but what's so exciting about sitting?
The answer is that it's exciting because the trainer has taught the dog to find it exciting. This is done by repeatedly pairing the sitting action with a great outcome, like treats. As a result, if the trainer does her job well, the dog will become quite excited to sit. Karen Pryor talks about this in her book Reaching the Animal Mind, and calls the cue “a promise of happy outcomes.” She says the cue tells the dog “if you understand what I'm saying, and you carry it out correctly, you will definitely win” (page 35). In this way, she says, the cue becomes another kind of conditioned reinforcer.
Kathy called it a “tertiary reinforcer,” because it's the third one out. The cue precedes the click which precedes the treat. Of course, the cue isn't as strong as a click. While a click always results in a treat (or at least, it should), a behavior may not always result in a click. We don't click good tries, after all; we only click behaviors which meet our criteria. Therefore, the click is contingent upon the dog performing the behavior correctly, making it an opportunity... and opportunities can be reinforcing, too.
Let me explain what I mean by expanding upon Kathy's metaphor of traffic lights. A green traffic light is a cue for someone to drive. It tells the driver that pressing the gas pedal is allowed now. For people who like to drive, this will be reinforcing in and of itself because the green light is a cue that gives permission to do something they find pleasurable.
For some of us, though, it's not so simple. Although I don't hate driving, I don't find the action all that thrilling, either. Still, it gets me places I want to go, so despite my ambivalence towards the act itself, I like to drive because of the results. This works with our dogs, too. They may not find sitting all that exciting, but it gets them a tasty treat or a toss of the tennis ball. If this happens enough times, it can transform a relatively mundane action into something associated with a good outcome.
The cue also becomes associated with that good outcome. I have had a long history of driving after seeing a green light, and then ending up at my destination. This has happened often enough that now I want to see the green light, not because it will let me drive, but because it predicts that I will end up at my desired location. Similarly, our dogs get excited when they hear our cue, not because they want to sit, but because they want the treat that they think will come when they do. Thus, my green light- and my dog's cue- becomes reinforcing because of the opportunity it signals.
Of course, things can go wrong. I might get in an accident, and the dog might respond to his cue incorrectly. In both cases, neither of us will get what we want. If this happened too often, neither of us would find our respective cues very exciting anymore. Thankfully, these occurrences are rare- or at least they should be. Just as I should be able to safely drive my car before I get in it, the dog should be able to perform the cue before the trainer gives it. This is why Kathy had three entire sessions at Clicker Expo on how and when to attach cues to behaviors.
As fascinating as all this is, I really think it's only half the story. If we want to use cues to their fullest potential by using them as reinforcers, I think it's important to understand why cues sometimes fail to be reinforcing. Because it's true; while cues can be reinforcing, that doesn't mean they will be. Kathy identified one reason (the use of punishment in training) at Clicker Expo, but I think it's more complicated than that. In my next post, I'll share some of my ideas with you.
In the meantime, though, I'd love to hear what you guys think. Does my explanation make sense? Do you have any reinforcing cues that were conditioned instead of taking advantage of your dog's innate loves? How and when do you use them? Let me know!