In the world of dog training, the difference between the word “cue” and the word “command” is not just one of semantics. Positive training techniques rely on cooperation between the human and the dog. Positive trainers set the learner up for success, then reward the dog for getting it right, making the dog an active participant in the contract. Older methods rely on an authoritarian model where commands are issued and strict compliance is expected, and where any deviation from this is viewed as insubordination and the dog is a participant whether it wants to be or not.

Today, we know that this outdated perspective can be damaging to the canine/human relationship, yet the term “command” lives on in dog training lexicon. Many other labels have survived their original use (“album” comes to mind in the music world), so why not continue to use the term “command” with our clients? Some may see this as an example of political correctness overreach in which “dogs are treated as children,” but at VSA, we don’t think so. There is a subliminal current that the term “command” carries as evidenced by the two examples below:

 “I command you to bring me my slippers.”

“When you hear the cue, that means pick up my slippers and deliver them to me.”

One implies do this or else (the implication being you will not like the “else”) and the other is an opportunity to carry out a request.

Cues are chock full of possibility, turning training into a game.

Dogs love to seek, sniff, and explore. Positive trainers use these qualities to our advantage by determining what is it we want the dog to do and then guiding and rewarding him through each step of the process towards the final finished goal behavior. The dog is an active – rather than passive – learner.  Once the behavior looks the way we want it to and the dog is performing it consistently, only then do we add the cue. The cue then becomes the signal to perform that specific behavior. Put simply, we shift to only rewarding the behavior after it is performed on cue. This makes the cue incredibly strong.

“What happens if the dog doesn’t perform the behavior after the cue is given?”

No problem! That simply tells us that somewhere, between the cue and the response, we have work to do. In marker training, the “no” is built into the process. No marker, no reward. This tells the learner to try again, which is then part of the game.

Some common reasons a dog may not respond to the cue are:

  • We assume that the dog understands what the cue signals when he hasn’t had enough practice.  Learning something new takes practice and repetition. If you’ve ever taken piano lessons, you practiced scales before learning to play actual music. Practice makes perfect!
  • There are distractions in the environment. Noises; a cat walking into the room; a change in your body position – these are all examples of distractions that can affect the learner’s ability to respond to the cue. Imagine that you just learned a new skill. Now imagine being asked to perform that skill in public, or at a rock concert! Positive trainers train for distractions by simply returning to the last step in which the dog was successful and adding one layer of distraction at a time, always ready to step back again when the learner is unsuccessful.  We build solid behaviors thoroughly and carefully.
  • The reward is not rewarding to the dog. Making training fun means finding what motivates the learner. If your client’s dog lives to chase balls, use a quick game as payment for a job well done. If your dog would fold your laundry for a bit of cheese, use that to your advantage! Make learning a game and keep it fun by using something your dog loves to earn.

Commands are used before the behavior is learned.

A command is given before or as the behavior is being taught, which can make it difficult to identify any lurking weaknesses, especially when it is made compulsory to perform. These weaknesses may appear when the behavior is taken into the real world, leading to “He does this perfectly at home, but once we are outdoors, all bets are off!”

Cues are versatile.

A cue can be a visual signal, an audible signal, or even an environmental signal. If it is salient to the learner, it can be used as a cue. Cues can be the glue you can use to chain together a series of behaviors which can wow a crowd. Teaching a dog to pick up an offered dollar bill and place it in a donation jar, for example can contain multiple cues.  While it may appear that the dog is sizing up the crowd, approaching the held-out bill, then placing it safely in the donation jar all on his own, he is really responding to a series of learned cues:

“I see someone has a donation!” (verbal cue to look for a held-out bill in the crowd)

Hand with bill extended (visual cue to take bill in mouth)

Dog spots donation jar and places the bill inside (environmental cue to drop bill in jar)

What looks like magic is really a series of learned behaviors, linked together by cues. Which, when you think of it, really is a form of magic! The magic of cues!

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