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What the INDICATOR Should Not Signal to the Dog

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

Chris has written about the role of the INDICATOR when teaching new responses. Now Chris shares with us “What the INDICATOR should not signal to the dog”.

First, the INDICATOR should NOT be an “end marker”. The INDICATOR should not be a signal to the dog that a behavior or behavior chain has ended. There should be a separate and distinctive cue that is an end or release signal such as “OK!” or Free!”

Using the INDICATOR as an “event marker”, not an “end marker” gives the trainer the ability to give a very high rate of reinforcement for the new concept a dog is learning. The trainer is able to reward the dog with greater frequency because the dog accepts the reward, but instead of quitting, recommits. The recommitment results in another reward. The trainer ends up giving multiple rewards for committing and recommitting to the new concept. The dog immediately gets into the habit of committing to the response and maintaining commitment to it.

Many training programs recommend that the INDICATOR be used as a release signal. But when it is used this way it is actually signaling a promise of reinforcement for quitting. It teaches a dog to get into the habit of working only towards being released instead of continuously intensifying his commitment to the behaviors being taught, proofed or rehearsed.

It is much more effective to use the INDICATOR only as an event marker and not an “end” signal. An “end” signal or release should always be followed by neutral, non-reinforcing events so the dog is disappointed to be released. Releases followed by celebration and reinforcement makes the dog work towards being released and not towards commitment to performance.

It is incredibly more effective if the INDICATOR is used THE THIRD WAY, which is an event marker and an invitation to continue and earn even more reinforcement.

THE THIRD WAY has a separate release cue that signals no more reinforcement is imminent. This way the release signal is actually a disappointment because it ends the activity and the opportunity to earn reinforcement.

Lastly, only dogs that want to continue and recommit to a response can be proofed. Proofing is the only way to achieve reliability under any circumstances. Using the INDICATOR as an end marker seriously impedes a trainer’s ability to proof.

Second, the INDICATOR should NOT be used as a way to get a dog’s attention. Using an INDICATOR to get a dog’s attention in order to give a cue or begin a training session is actually marking the opposite behavior of what is really wanted. The event of ignoring the trainer was the behavior that was marked and reinforced. This becomes the behavior with the highest rate of reinforcement. Therefore, it is the behavior of choice for the dog. Most trainers are not out to teach their dogs to ignore them! But using the INDICATOR as a cue for attention results in dogs that ignore rather than attend to their trainers.

Another grave problem created by using the INDICATOR as an “attention getter” is that the dog does not learn to make a connection between a response and the I/R (Indicator/Response) sequence. He learns only to listen for the sound of the INDICATOR. That noise becomes the only predictor of good things. The dog does not learn that a cue is the real catalyst for hearing the INDICATOR. They just put all of their focus on whether the INDICATOR is present or not. They don’t learn to listen for cues; they only learn to listen for the INDICATOR.

Trainers utilizing THE THIRD WAY never use the INDICATOR to get their dogs’ attention. Their dogs’ learn that cues are the key to reinforcement, not just the presence of the INDICATOR. It is never necessary for dogs trained this way to have to hear the INDICATOR in order to respond.

Dogs trained THE THIRD WAY also learn to become what is termed “CUE READY”. In other words they are listening for cues rather than concerned with the whereabouts of the INDICATOR.

Third, the INDICATOR should NOT be used to get a dog to “be happy” or change attitude. The INDICATOR is meant to facilitate a dog’s learning how to respond to cues, not a dog learning how to be “happy” or have “fun” with his trainer.

The trouble is that many trainers are caught up in the myth that dogs should be “happy” while learning and performing. Because the sound of the INDICATOR is always followed by reinforcement, the sound of the INDICATOR will always change a dog’s emotional state to a better, “happier looking” one. So naturally trainers who believe the myth also believe that it is a good idea to use the INDICATOR to change their dogs’ attitude to a “happier” one when necessary.

Unfortunately this tactic becomes habitual to trainers because it seems to work so well. But it is an insidious trap. Both the trainers and the dogs begin to depend upon the INDICATOR instead of the opportunity to learn and perform to put them in the right “mood” for training and performing.

Eventually the dog will be required to perform when it is not possible for the trainer to “encourage” him with the INDICATOR. Unfortunately, the dog loses attitude because the trainer has inadvertently paired the necessary behaviors with the “happy” attitude. When the attitude diminishes, the behaviors also fade away. These failures depress and confuse dog and trainer. Eventually these trainers lose confidence in their ability to train and in their dogs’ ability to learn or perform without the INDICATOR. This powerful training tool turns into a nightmarish crutch.

It is a fact that learning is stressful. When learning a new concept a dog will not look or act as happy as they do when not learning or when performing a task that is self-reinforcing or habitual. Instead of trying to “make” a dog happy while learning, trainers should concentrate only on being clear, accurate, calm and confident in presenting the information to their dog. Skillful trainers minimize their dogs’ stress. Skillful trainers result in well-trained, confident and relaxed dogs. It is a much better idea to learn to be more skillful than to learn how to “jolly up” a dog! Learning to use the INDICATOR only as an event marker and not as a “cheerleading” tool is a good step.

Fourth, the INDICATOR is a “consequence” and should NEVER be used as a “cue”. The power of the INDICATOR is in its role as an accurate predictor of a pleasant consequence as a result of a response. It is meant to be an event marker, and that is its most useful and powerful role.

Using the INDICATOR as a cue to “Come”, “Stop”, “Watch”, or “Leave It”, will drastically dilute it as an event marker and deprive the trainer of the power afforded them when the INDICATOR is used THE THIRD WAY as an event marker.

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