What is a Cue?

As trainers using only force-free training techniques, our clients are always puzzled when we talk about “cueing” a dog.  We use the word Cue instead of Command.  Why, you ask? Command implies that if the dog doesn’t do what we ask, something dire will happen.  In force-free training, if the dog doesn’t perform the behavior I merely look at myself, the trainer responsible for the dog’s learning, to determine how to make it easier for the dog to succeed. After all, training is about wanting success for our dogs.

So what is a cue? It’s anything your dog can perceive. It can be visual (such as a hand signal, body or eye movement), it can be auditory (a word, whistle or other sound) or it can be an environmental cue (such as someone knocking on your door that gets your dog barking) or it can be something about which you’re totally unaware.

It’s important to know what your cues are for your dog. Yes, I bet you think you know, but in reality your dog may think your cues are very different than you think they are.

Dogs have keen observation skills. Because they’re visual, they are also keen observers. They pick up on our body language long before they pick up on our words. So if you think you have a verbal cue, but also use some body movement with it, I’d lay money on the fact that if you said the word and didn’t use the body movement, the dog probably wouldn’t understand what you mean and wouldn’t give you the behavior you associate with that particular cue. This is where clients in class always say, with some frustration, “But he KNOWS it!”  Nope.  he doesn’t.

If you’re going to teach your dog a new behavior, you must first “show” the dog what you want them to do.  For example, if I’m attempting to teach a dog to sit, I would get the dog to give me the behavior by first luring or capturing the movement.  Our dogs know how to sit, right?  They just don’t know how to sit when we say “Sit.” To lure, I would take piece of food in my hand and move it up and back over the dog’s head. This causes the dog to look up and their bottom to go down. When their bottom hits the floor, I would click and treat (if you don’t have a clicker, just say “Yes” and feed a yummy piece of food).

To capture, I would merely wait patiently, observe the dog and when the dog happened to put his bottom on the floor, I’d click and treat. Once the dog is reliably doing the behavior (reliably means 80-90% of the time), then you can begin to incorporate whatever cue you wish by using your desired cue as the dog is performing the behavior. After the dog is successful with this a few times, then you can use the cue before the dog performs the behavior. And don’t forget to reinforce after every successful repetition!

It’s a good exercise to take a piece of paper and write down each and every cue you use with your dog.  Take a look at Keaton’s cue dictionary.  I list the verbal cue, but also the visual cue and the definition of the cue so I know what I expect him to do (after training, of course). We always recommend keeping a journal to track your training sessions and to list and define your cues.  Videoing yourself is another fantastic way to observe how you and your dog are working together.  With the popularity of tablets and smart phones, we all have video capability at our fingertips these days.  it can be very humbling the first time you view yourself, so just smile and remember its for your and your dog’s benefit!

Once you begin really looking at your cues, you may discover that your cue is very different than you think.  If so, it can be confusing to your dog.  Your dog doesn’t willingly disobey you or choose not to listen, he’s just confused in the learning process.  It’s important to always set our dogs up for success.  We want them to practice their successes….not their mistakes.  By understanding your cues, you’re one step closer to insuring your dog clearly understands your desires.

Happy training

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