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Power of Habits, Recipe for a "Cue" and Most Common Releases Dogs Cue from Owners

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

Chris discusses the “power of habits”, her “recipe for a cue” and the most "common releases" dogs cue from their owners.

The Power of Habits

Only voluntary behaviors become habits. Habits are formed when circumstances allow a chosen behavior or behavior pattern to take place repeatedly. Rehearsal is key to the formation of a habit and voluntary behavior will always be rehearsed more than forced behavior.

Habitual behavior happens just because there is opportunity to do it! It takes place without much thought, purpose, planning, or even awareness that one is performing it.

Habitual behavior requiring more effort will get more effort because when more effort is made, commitment to that habit becomes more intense and strong.

Habits remain and grow stronger despite bad consequences.

Habits continue acquiring new triggers.

Habits are forever! They ONLY become “dormant”. They CAN always come back!

So, how do you go about reshaping an undesirable behavior that has become a habit? You need to develop a new cue to replace the cue (trigger) that was initiating the behavioral response.

Recipe for a “Cue”

It is important that each ingredient be presented and taught in the correct order and be completed before the next ingredient is introduced.

First, the trainer endeavors to get the dog to voluntarily offer the targeted response or an approximation of it. For example, when the Eye Contact Game is begun for the first time, puppies are rewarded for looking away from the food. Once they learn that looking away from the food is the way to get it, the eye contact contingency can be introduced.

Props, prompts or gestures are used to induce the dog to perform the targeted response voluntarily. He is then heavily reinforced for performing the response. During this initial introduction, management procedures and devices are used to prevent any unwanted responses from occurring or being self-reinforced.

For example, you have experience with teaching your dog how to make eye contact when you use the hand signal. First he was taught to offer it voluntarily. He was enticed into making eye contact by your having him choose between looking at food or looking into your eyes. He was not forced to look into your eyes. His eyeballs were not manipulated so that he had to look at you. He learned to choose the eye contact option. It was self-initiated.

What followed was how your active role in teaching a signal cue began. You I/R’d (indicated/reinforced) the commitment point and reinforced him at a very high rate. As he was learning, he could rely on the fact that when he made eye contact, he would be reinforced.

He was also managed with a tether, a floor cord, or by being in a crate so that unwanted responses were prevented.

Then once the dog was voluntarily doing the targeted response, in this case, making eye contact, it was rehearsed over and over until the dog became aware of what he was doing. Once he was aware of what he was doing, he also was aware of the “cueing” prop, prompt or gesture that predicted that if he offered eye contact, he would be reinforced. When the Choice Method was used to teach eye contact, the dog learned the hand gestures of “food in front of his nose and then moved out at arm’s length” was the predicting cue.

When the dog was responding correctly, you took this initial cueing gesture and refined it into a specific signal.

As soon as the dog was making eye contact when your arm was held out away from your face, you took that gesture and refined it further so that it became one smooth motion and your hand ended up behind your back. The cue now had a beginning and an end. You did not continue to hold the signal until the dog performed.

This refined and precise signal cue was then used to solicit eye contact and it could be used in many different situations. You did not have to depend upon specific circumstances or contexts to get the behavior.

Once the response was on a signal cue, it was then proofed so that it was reliable no matter what and no matter where. The dog could be signaled to perform in familiar and unfamiliar places.

This is how signal cues are taught THE THIRD WAY. Get the behavior on a voluntary basis, and as soon as the dog is aware of what he is doing, refine the signal until he knows how to respond to it. Then proof the response to the signal until it is reliable.

It takes training time and dedication to develop a good, reliable signal cue system. This is why it is so wise to teach the dog THE THIRD WAY. He will learn them on a voluntary basis so he will learn them just as easily and they will be just as reliable as contextual cues.

Here is the “shortened” recipe for a cue:

1) Get an approximation of the targeted response to be taught using a prop, prompt or “leading” gesture. A leading gesture may be showing the dog the reward, but the dog only gets the reward for doing the correct behavior.

2) This initial gesture, prompt or prop will be the “first cue” for this new response.

3) Get the full-targeted response.

4) Be sure the dog is aware of what he is doing.

5) Refine the “cue” that is soliciting the response.

6) Be sure the dog is responding reliably to the refined gesture, prompt, or prop cue.

7) Add a “verbal” cue ONLY when response to this initial cue is reliable.

8) To introduce a new cue, follow this sequence: New cue (verbal) followed by the old cue (gesture, prompt or prop).

9) Remember, just because a dog does it does NOT mean he knows it!

10) The new cue must be rehearsed many times before the dog can be expected to respond correctly and reliably when using ONLY the new cue.

In the teaching process, many things can happen that are not planned. For example, dogs will often come up with their own “releases” which will break the training session. Below is a list of common releases.

Common List of Dog’s Releases

* My owner looked away!
* I got tired of waiting!
* I spotted food on the floor!
* One of my buddies walked in the door!
* One of my buddies walked by!
* A dog sniffed me!
* My owner moved!
* My owner yawned!
* My owner talked to a friend!

If your dog “releases” himself from a training session, do NOT get angry at the dog. Instead, work on having the dog focus on you once again, and then go back to the training exercise you were working on prior to the dog breaking the session.

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