Cues are signals that tell your dog what you want him to do
Cues are signals we give our dogs requesting specific behaviours. For example, we might cue our dog to “sit” by saying the word “Sit” or by using a particular hand gesture. Cues can also be sounds, scents, or touch.
Cues are different than commands. A command implies an element of force but a cue gives the dog an opportunity to earn a reinforcement. A reinforcement is something the dog likes and will work to obtain, for example, a treat, a toy, the opportunity to chase a squirrel, etc. Sometimes reinforcements are called rewards. The difference is that a reinforcement, by definition, will strengthen a behaviour and cause it to be repeated.
A cue is like a green light to do a behaviour. A cue does not cause the behaviour to happen. Behaviour is caused by consequences, that is, the reinforcement the dog receives for doing the behaviour. The cue tells the dog what behaviour to do to receive the reinforcement. For example:
You ask the dog to sit – the cue
The dog sits – the behaviour
The dog receives a treat – the consequence (a reinforcement that encourages the dog to repeat the behaviour to earn the reinforcement again)
How do you choose a cue? Here are some tips:
Choose a cue that is easily understandable by your dog and that differs as much as possible from other cues you use.
Dogs don’t speak English. Our verbal cues are not meaningful language to them. Choose cues that give your dog maximum clarity. For example, think about how “down”, and “bow” sound similar and the behaviours are similar too. Differentiating those two verbal cues could be confusing for a dog.
Hand gestures can be similar too. For example, how many of your cues use a flat palm? Consider different ways to present your hand including using a fist, two fingers, a thumb’s up, etc.
Try to make your cues stand out from background noise or movements. Make them “pop”. Consider noises instead of verbal cues. For example, how much easier might it be for your dog to perceive your cue for “backing up” if the cue is “BeepBeep” instead of “Back up”?
Think outside the box when choosing cues. Remember that dogs are sensitive to our movements and that they are much shorter than we are. We typically use our hands to give our dogs cues but why not use our feet, which are closer to the dog’s line of vision? Or try using a tactile cue, such as a touch on the dog’s shoulder, to cue her to spin?
Use cues with intent. If cues happen often with no consequence to the dog, the cue will lose its power. To keep your cues clean, here are some don’ts:
Don’t use your cues casually. Instead use them with intent when you are requesting a behaviour from your dog.
Don’t repeat or chant cues. Say the cue once and only once.
Make each cue consistent. Don’t use synonyms. To your dog, “Come” is not the same as “Come here”, or “Come now.” Say your cues the same way every time.
Don’t use the cue as part of the praise you give your dog for doing the behaviour. For example, don’t say “good sit” when the dog sits on cue. For clarity you only want to say the cue when you are requesting the behaviour. Instead, get in the habit of saying things like “good job”, “well done”, “great work”, etc.
In the first part of the video I have not yet added the verbal cue. We worked on this for about 5 minutes a day for a couple of weeks to get to the point where Buddy was reliably backing up to the target. At that point, I add a verbal cue (which I later changed to BEEP BEEP!)
HOMEWORK: Think about the cues you use for your dog. Measure them against the tips presented here. Could you improve some of the cues you use to make yourself clearer to your dog?