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Mastering Dog Training

The Art of Using Cues Effectively

There are many interesting training-related topics to discuss amongst dog lovers, and this time round, we decided to talk about cues (some refer to as "commands"). We're going to take a closer look at cues because we use cues to communicate with our dogs.

Remember, dogs don't understand English.

They learn what words mean by associating the word with whatever action is most closely paired with it over many repetitions. This means that if your dog is standing in front of you, staring at you, and you keep telling him to "sit," he's very likely to think that the word "sit" means "stand in front of my owner and look at them." Not the association we want them to make!

From the Cambridge Dictionary:

Command: an order, especially one given by a soldier/control over someone or something and responsibility for him, her, or it.

Cue: a word or action in a play or film that is used as a signal by a performer to begin saying or doing something / a signal for someone to do something.

Take your cue from someone: to take notice of someone's words or behaviour so that you know what you should do.

In today's Dog Training Blog, we will cover the following:

Instructions for Dog Training Using Cues

1. How to get your dog to do what you ask - Dog Training

The way you're asking your dog is essential. Cues (not commands) are a vital component of solid dog training. Often, understanding cues and cueing can improve your dog's listening to you and achieve better results when training with your dog.

2. What is a cue?

Cues exist in our own life, too. Traffic lights are cues for us; green means go, and red means stop. Dogs can take cues from the environment, body language, a word, smell, sound – anything the dog can notice can be a cue.

Does your dog come running into the kitchen when you open the fridge or get excited when you pick up the lead? You are cueing your dog to perform a behaviour. The dog has associated an action with something good happening.

A cue can be a word, a phrase or a sound. The doorbell ringing in our house means: go to the fridge, and you will get a carrot.

Cues are the way we ask a dog to do something during dog training.

When dogs don't listen to us, we sometimes blame the dog. He ignores me, or he doesn't listen to me – sometimes, we are part of the problem because we are not communicating clearly enough with our dog.

Maybe you say "Here" sometimes, but other times you say "Come!" Or maybe someone else says, "C'mon!" And the dog is supposed to know that all those different words mean "run to me as quickly and directly as possible?" - not possible.

Back to our traffic light example: what if the traffic light showed a green and a yellow light simultaneously?

What does that mean?! Everyone would probably interpret that differently: go, stop, go slowly, go but look both ways, etc.

That would be confusing, wouldn't it?

That's how easy it is to confuse our own dogs.

3. What is a Good Cue?

Does your dog get excited when you pick up the lead? The lead is a cue: the appearance of the lead means a walk is imminent. You don't have to say a word; your dog knows and is ON IT. Walk! Walk! Walk! Let's go! Walk!

You can use a word (like "sit"), a leg signal (standing with your legs apart for your dog to go in between "middle"), the presentation of something (a lead before going for a walk) – anything your dog will notice.

A good cue is simple – it should be just one word or action. A good cue isn't the word "sit" and the hand signal given simultaneously; it is one or the other.

A good cue is consistent. It should look or sound the same every time. It doesn't matter who is giving the cue to the dog. Take some time to talk about cues with your family. Make sure everyone is saying or doing the same thing all the time. If someone calls the dog by saying, "Come!" while others say, "Come Here!" the dog's response (coming when called) will go downhill over time because the cue is inconsistent.

On Cue

What does it mean when we say a behaviour is on cue, how can you tell if a behaviour is on cue, and what difference does it make to you if your dog's behaviours are on cue? A cue tells a learner, and for this discussion, the learner is your dog, that the behaviour he offers is what you want and will get awarded accordingly (or, in a training scenario, be reinforced). A cue is for you to communicate effectively with your dog and achieve all the behaviours you would like your dog to know.

In short, It's the way you ask your dog to do something, and your dog can reliably do it. A behaviour is on cue when the dog has learned and understands that a specific signal means "go and do that behaviour". For example, you ask your dog to "sit", and he offers to sit in response to your request without delay. A dog offering every behaviour he knows when someone holds a piece of chicken in their hand most likely means that these behaviours are not on cue. A behaviour on cue is an immediate correct response to a request.

Cues give clarity and strengthen your dog's reliability. Having a clear and clean way to ask for behaviour (the cue!) is one of the building blocks to a strong, reliable, consistent response from your dog. A strong and clear cue is necessary for successful communication with your dog.

4. Put the Behaviour On Cue

To put a behaviour on cue, we need to teach the dog that the word and behaviour are connected. It's time for you to get training and get some of your dog's behaviour on cue. Here's how to teach by capturing your dog's desired behaviour that your signals (the cues) matter, and what to do. Before you add the cue, please wait until your dog is offering the new behaviour reliably enough that you can predict when he will do it.

Maybe you've been capturing his yawning every morning when he stretches, and now, every time he walks up to you, he yawns in the hope that you'll click and reward him.

When you bet £100 that your dog will yawn within the next 2-3 seconds, say your cue. Let's say you want to teach your dog to yawn when you ask, "Is it bedtime?" Say "bedtime" right before you think your dog will yawn. When he yawns, click and reward.

Repeat this 10 times or so. Each time you think he's about to yawn, say "bedtime," then click and reward. After 10 yawns, stop talking. He'll probably yawn again. Don't click this one. He may yawn more or try yawning longer. Wait until he stops yawning. As soon as there's a pause, say "bedtime" and click the next yawn that happens after this.

At this stage, we teach the dog to improve his yawning behaviour.

He's learned that sometimes, he will get a snack when he yawns. Now, we're explaining a new rule to him. We're showing him that he will only get a tasty snack reward for yawning if he does so when he hears the word "bedtime" first. "Bedtime" has become a green light for yawning. It tells him, "Now would be a good time to try that yawning trick."

This is an example of how to get a behaviour on cue.

For a non-verbal cue for a behaviour, such as a hand signal or body cue, just insert that movement in place of the word in the above example (for instance, you may decide you want to teach your dog to yawn when you yawn, so the two of you can acknowledge an appreciative audience together). Expect this process to take 40-100 repetitions with most dogs.

5. Important Points

Ignore any uncued behaviours (behaviours that happen if you didn't ask for them). Suppose your dog gets clicked and treated whenever he offers the correct behaviour (as opposed to only when asked for the behaviour). In that case, the cue is meaningless to the dog. Say the cue just once. This is often the most challenging part of this for dog owners. They want to repeat the cue "down, down, down!" to get the dog to do the behaviour, but what's really happening is that the dog is getting a "muddy" version.

The cue is "down." Say the word and then wait. And wait. And wait some more if necessary. Wait silently. When the dog does the behaviour, click and treat! This silence and stillness helps the dog to think and see the link between the cue and the behaviour (and the reinforcer that comes from performing the behaviour upon perceiving the cue).

Work on one cue and behaviour within a training session.

The concept of cues may seem daunting to your dog, especially if he's never had any reason to notice them in the past. After you introduce the cue to one behaviour and your dog seems to catch on, go ahead and work on a different behaviour.

Behaviour that is reinforced will be repeated. (if you reinforce your dog for sitting, he's likely to sit more often and, so, jump on you less).

Contact us if you would like to find out more about our training classes!

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