What Is a Dog Cue and When Do You Use It?
Behavior is a Result of Consequences, Not “Commands”
Language does not make behavior happen. Consequences – rewards and reinforcements do.
Dogs learn by repetition. They don’t speak our language, but are very adept at reading their environment and figuring out what earned them a paycheck. So while you train with your dog, it is best to focus on what you are doing and not talk. Once your dog is proficient at a behavior, and you can predict the behavior happening, then you can add a verbal cue or hand signal.
(A cue is a physical or verbal sign or signal telling a dog to do a certain behavior or action.)
Work on getting the behaviors you want solid, before adding the cue. Doing so will give you a solid behavior on cue; cuing too early can result in confusion, inconsistency and a frustrated dog, not to mention your frustration later!
Types of Cues
- Environmental: Example: Door bells, opening any door, picking up your keys, etc., etc. Takes very little training on our part for the dog to create their own response to these stimuli. Alternate responses are teachable. We recommend starting right away, to avoid needing to change a learned response.
- Body, Hand or, other Signal: Example, wave a flag, pull out an object, lift your hand, point a finger, etc. Having trained signals is great! If your dog ever loses his hearing, you can still communicate! Also, dogs speak a wealth of body language, it’s fast, easy and effective to train these!
- Verbal Word or Noise: Example: “COME!” “SIT.” Three toots of a horn, etc. We are a verbose society, and we love to talk to our pets! I’m all for that, I speak to my dogs in full sentences, too. I ask questions and occasionally even answer myself. However, my dogs key into specific words and phrases more than others. I think their favorite cue is “ALL DONE” and “LET’S GO see the latte ladies!” a close second. However you say it, please try not to repeat yourself. If it is really important, say your dogs’ names first, then the cue. “Rover, COME!”
Choosing a Cue Name…
- KISS Keep It Simple, Sweetheart, we don’t need a paragraph when a single word will do.
- Concise. Consistent.
- Single meaning.
- Doesn’t look or sound like some other signal
Name that Behavior! (Add a Cue, Turn on the Green Light, Ask for It!)
Whatever behavior you have when you decide to add the cue will be the behavior you will continue to get. Get what you want before you add the cue. Remember, the cue does not make the behavior happen! You’re saying a word or making a hand motion is not why the dog does something. The history of past reinforcement for his performing the behavior (the consequence) is what motivates the dog to do it. Your word or signal simply means “Do it now and I might pay you for it.”
We all want a dog who performs reliably on cue. Dogs do not speak our language, so it is our job to teach them…
- What behaviors earn them rewards and when.
- What predicts for the dog (the cue) that a particular behavior will (possibly) get them rewards.
Practice in all types of environments (Take the Show on the Road). Then you start paying randomly for a commanded behavior(Slot Machine.) Your dog knows that a given behavior, like SIT, earns him a reward. When you add the cue, now you can signal when you want it. Then you go back and repeat the generalization of the cue and slot machine payoff.
Your goal is to get control of the behavior reliably with a stimulus (verbal cue or hand signal) by teaching the dog what cues predict which behavior gets paid when the signal is given.
- Do a 30 second to one minute session of repetitions of SIT. Treat on a variable reinforcement schedule (Slot Machine style.) Take a quick break, then go back to work.
- Can you predict when your dog is about to SIT? If so, then before the dog sits, toss your cue out there (verbal or hand signal, not both at once). Do this for the rest of the minute.
- Now, only pay your dog for SIT when you ask for it. If your dog sits without your cue, do not pay.
- When you have this on a slot-machine payoff, add the desired hand signal (or verbal cue if you taught the hand signal first) prior to saying your verbal cue. The dog will learn quickly these predictors mean he will be paid for the behavior.
- Take it on the road and keep practicing.
In my next post I’ll talk about adding additional cues.
As a dog trainer, I believe that the most effective method of dog training revolves around teaching your dog what you want them to do, how to behave, how to act in their environment, and what appropriate behaviors are, under given circumstances and situations.