How Clear Are Your Cues - Really?

Cue related things have come up a few times in my training in the last week, so I thought I'd write about them! Let's start at the start...

What is a cue? A cue is a stimulus that prompts a learner to perform a specific behaviour. Cues can be verbal, physical, environmental or a combination of a number of things. For example, you could teach your dog to nose target your hand on just the cue of presenting your hand, or you could add a verbal cue. The presence of a tree is an environmental cue for most dogs to sniff!

When do we add a cue? In positive reinforcement based training, we usually start adding the cue once we are pretty certain that our dog is going to offer our target behaviour. In the nose target example mentioned above, I'll work through the steps of my dog just looking at my hand, then approaching it and finally touching it with their nose. I will usually toss their reward away from me so that they're set up to repeat the behaviour. Once they're reliably collecting their treat and returning to target my hand, I'll start fading in the cue. At first, I will likely say it just before they get to my hand and then gradually start saying it closer to the point where they turn after collecting their reward. NOTE - this may not all happen in one session!

This video shows me working through these steps with Peak - he has done some nose touches before, so I'm mainly focused on fading in the cue.

Testing the cue - Now that our learner is responding to our new cue, we still have a little work to do! This is an area that trips some people up. Just because your dog understands what 'sit' means in your living room, that doesn't mean that they know that it still means the same thing out in the big, wide world. Remember I mentioned environmental cues? When you first train a behaviour, the environment that you're in is part of your cue. Sit is a common behaviour that many people pick as the first thing to train their new puppy (not me, but there's a whole book coming on that!) Most pups pick this up quite quickly, but when you take them to puppy class and try and show your trainer your pup looks at you like you have two heads! That's often because rather than learning that 'sit' means 'put your bum on the floor', they've learned that when they're in the living room with you standing or sitting in front of them with a handful of treats and say 'sit' then their bum should go on the floor. Eventually, once you repeat your 'sit' training in a few different places, your pup will start to work out that the most salient piece of information is the word 'sit', and that it means that wherever you are, putting their bum on the floor is worth doing. This gets easiest with the more training that you do - your dog starts to learn that your words can be meaningful to them.

Discriminative stimulus - this is the posh term for cues. According to Karen Pryor, there are four 'rules for cues':

  1. The dog always does the behaviour you ask for, when you ask for it. E.g. you say 'sit' and your dog sits.

  2. The behaviour doesn't happen when you cue another behaviour. E.g. your dog shouldn't sit when you cue 'down'.

  3. No other behaviour happens when you cue the behaviour. E.g. your dog doesn't lie down when you cue 'sit'

  4. The behaviour does not occur in the absence of the cue. This is a bit of a tougher one! Your dog will more than likely sit of his own accord, but what is meant by this rule is that if your are within a training session your dog shouldn't sit unless cued to sit. You know those dogs that offer every behaviour under the sun as soon as they think there's a chance of food? That's quite often because the behaviours that they do know aren't fully on cue as described here!

Read more here.

I'm going to sign off for today with a final couple of thoughts. Firstly - are you sure that your cue is verbal only? What happens if you stand with your hands behind your back? Or sit rather than stand when you cue the behaviour? Video can be your friend here! Our dogs will favour body movements over our words, and so often what we think is our cue isn't as clear as we'd like. Yes, our dog will sit when we say 'sit', but actually, we also flick our hand up at the same time. Secondly, my biggest bugbear when it comes to cues is repetition! Is the cue 'sit' or is it 'sit, sit, sit, sit, sit'... If my dog doesn't respond to the first cue, then I'm going to ask myself why - maybe they didn't hear me, maybe they're not emotionally or physically able to perform the behaviour in that moment or maybe I haven't trained it as well as I thought! Case in point - I went to make some videos to go with this blog, and discovered that Peak doesn't know 'lie' as well as I thought!

A final video, showing Ripley and his understanding of cues (we had a mistake, but that's OK!) I've also added him NOT doing a nose touch on just the presentation of my hand; we've not done this for a while, but he soon remembered that the absence of a cue meant offer stillness. This can be reinforced with either a click/treat or by giving the anticipated cue.

Tell me about your experience with cues? Have you picked up any new nuggets from this blog? I'd love to hear from you!

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