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Common Cue Miscommunications During The Teaching Process

By Chris Bach and The Third Way – The Next Generation in Reinforcement Training

Chris begins a new topic: Common Cue Miscommunications.

Unlike any other animal training discipline in the world, dog trainers need and depend upon being able to CUE dogs to respond in certain ways rather than depending upon habitual behavior chains or contextual responses.

Trainers must learn how to teach CUES and avoid miscommunications that prevent a dog from learning the cue that is intended. Common problems that should be avoided during the teaching process are: 1) Unclear “On/Off” switches. 2) Lack of Cue “Salience”. 3) Accidental Cues. 4) Gratuitous Breaks.

There are also situations that weaken and deteriorate established CUE SYSTEMS. The most common are: 1) Body vs. Vocal Cues. 2) Body and/or Vocal Escalation. 3) Misunderstanding Anticipation or “Backward Predictability”. 4) Inconsistent Use of “On/Off” Switches. 5) Doing vs. Thinking. 6) Lack of Cue “Salience”.

Common Miscommunications During the Teaching Process

1. Unclear “On/Off” Switches

A Dog must be taught clear and consistent “on” and “off” switches or “cues” in order for the dog to continue commitment to an occurring behavior or to continue commitment to completing a chain of behaviors. To accomplish this, the trainer must have a clear understanding of how the dog is expected to respond to a cue.

For example, if a trainer wishes a dog to sit on cue and remain until released, the dog must be taught the “on switch” of “sit”. The dog also must be taught to continue to commit to the “sit” position no matter what. Then the dog also needs to be taught the “off switch” of “OK” which constitutes the release from the “sit” position.

Also, when a trainer wishes a cue to initiate a chain of behaviors, the dog must learn the cue that turns the chain on and what response or cue ends the chain. For example, when a trainer teaches a dog how to come when called. The trainer cues the dog “come” and expects a behavior chain that includes the dog turning to the trainer upon hearing the cue. Without further cueing, the dog is expected to look at them, proceed directly to them, sit or stand by them and remain until released or given another cue.

Unless the trainer teaches the appropriate “on” and “off” cues, the dog will be incapable of accurately performing feats that require him to either stay committed to an occurring behavior, or to commit to a chain of behaviors until its end or until the dog is released or given another cue.

2. Lack of Cue “Salience” During Teaching

“Salience” means that something is the most obvious, outstanding, and compelling element in the environment. In order for a dog to learn a cue, it must be the most salient stimulus in the environment. Four phenomenons prevent cue salience during the teaching process: Overshadowing, Discrimination, Limitations, Learned Irrelevance and Blocking.

Overshadowing

Fatigue, frustration, too much social pressure, or confusing fixation points can all “overshadow” the salience of what response a trainer is trying to teach and trying to get on cue.

Discrimination Limitations

Example: Simultaneously teaching a few hand signals that are all done with movement of the right hand can result in the dog not being able to discriminate which particular movement of the right hand is meant to signal what specific response.

Learned Irrelevance

When a stimulus or signal has occurred repeatedly in the environment and has not elicited a response or predicted a consequence, that stimulus or signal becomes irrelevant or meaningless. For example, if a dog lives in a boisterous household where people are constantly yelling back and forth, a dog can quickly learn that human verbiage means nothing and predicts nothing. The dog will ignore human voices.

Research has proven that once a stimulus or cue becomes irrelevant, it is next to impossible to give it meaning or value as a cue for a specific response.

Blocking

Learning a new response or behavior pattern in response to a stimulus or cue will be “blocked” when the dog has learned a set of responses that result in the dog being satisfied, especially if the satisfaction is on a random schedule. Learning a new response in the presence of that stimuli or cue will not occur when the original response or behavior pattern can be performed and still randomly results in a satisfying state.

For example, a dog cannot be taught a new greeting behavior while in the process of greeting people if the current greeting behavior randomly satisfies the dog.

3. Accidental Cues (Contextual Cues)

Trainers can “accidentally” teach a dog a cue and not even realize it has happened. For example, gestures used in preparation to get a behavior such as changing a leash from one hand to another can become a cue. Also gestures or vocalizations that are inadvertently repeated while teaching a response such as verbal encouragement as opposed to well-time verbal reward can accidentally solicit or reward the wrong behavior and accidentally become a cue.

4. Gratuitous Breaks

“Gratuitous breaks” are unexpected interruptions that result in both the dog and trainer losing concentration. Trainers should always remember that a gratuitous break will likely erase what has just been taught. Therefore after such a break, the trainer should ALWAYS be sure the dog is back to being attentive before beginning to teach again. Then they should always go back a step or two to be sure the dog is not confused.

(c) THE THIRD WAY ~ Chris Bach ~ 2002 - 2003. All rights reserved.