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Common Miscommunications with Established Cues

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

Chris shares her knowledge of “common miscommunications with established cues”.

Body vs. Vocal Cues

Bodies don’t lie! Dogs always listen to human body language over and above our verbalization. So one mustn’t say one thing with the voice and have the body saying something different. For example, calling a dog to “come” when the caller is upset. This will cause the voice to say, “Come to me” and the body to say, “Coming to me could be dangerous!” Such contradiction between body and voice will confuse the dog and deteriorate the Cue System.

Body and/or Vocal Escalation

Upon the dog’s non-compliance to a cue, people often have a tendency to change their Cue System immediately. They may escalate the tone and intensity of a verbal cue and/or add a gesture cue. Or, if beginning with a gesture cue, they may intensify the gesture and/or add a verbal cue. In either case, the cue changes. To further compound the problem, the trainer’s general body posture changes from neutral to dangerous looking. Eventually, the Cue System is so confusing that neither the trainer nor the dog is clear anymore on what the exact cue for a response is or at what level of escalation. Also, the dog may be learning to respond only when the trainer looks threatening or is using BOTH the verbal and gesture cue.

Misunderstanding Anticipation or “Backward Predictability”

Another way to describe “anticipation” is backward predictability. In other words, any stimulus or signal will become a cue if it reliably predicts an event and eventually a series of events that the dog either wants to avoid or wants to obtain.

“Anticipation” is the reason why competition dogs act as if they know what to do before their handler gives them the cue. It is also the phenomenon that enables trainers to teach a new cue to a behavior that already has a cue.

Inconsistent Use of “On/Off” Switches

Remembering that in order for a dog to maintain a behavior such as “stay”, or complete an entire behavior sequence such as coming when called, the trainer must maintain clear and concise “on/off switches”. If a trainer gets lackadaisical about accurately turning the dog “off”, the dog will start to accumulate a new release Cue System on his own. Behavior sequences will also start to deteriorate that require the dog to maintain commitment to the occurring response or to continue a chain of responses until the appropriate end. For example, stimuli that previously cued the dog to maintain commitment to “stay” will begin to be the cue or stimulus for the dog to release himself.

Accurate “on/off switches” also make PROOFING behaviors possible and without the ability to proof, a trainer can never attain reliable, accurate responses to a cue under all circumstances.

What the Trainer and Dog are “DOING” vs. What the Trainer is “THINKING”

A good example of a dog doing one thing while the trainer is thinking about doing another happens often with the “stay” cue.

During competition, practicing for competition, or when a trainer is being “serious” about training, the dog is cued to “stay”. The dog is then expected to remain stationary until released or given another cue. However, around the house that same trainer may tell the dog to “stay” and then leave for eight hours. The dog is doing the “stay”, but the trainer was actually just thinking, “Stay there so I can get out the door”. They did not expect the dog to stay put for eight hours, but the dog did not know that! Instead the dog eventually released himself, and learned that “stay” means different things at different times.

Lack of Cue “Salience”

Once a dog has learned a cue, cue “salience” can be affected by conflicting or interfering cues.

If a trainer is not careful, a dog can be taught cues that are too similar. The dog may be able to discriminate between the signals when they are given at separate times or under non-distracting circumstances, but may be conflicting to the dog when they occur together, under similar situations, or when the dog is overly aroused or suppressed.

Also many things in the environment are very appealing to some dogs and very scary to others. How elements in the environment affect a dog depends on many facets such as past history, temperament, reflexive responses and the like. It is always possible that when a dog is given a cue, something in the environment can interfere with the dog either processing the cue or performing the cued behavior.

Once a cue has been taught, it is important when proofing or rehearsing the response that the trainer is sure that a cue will be “salient” before giving the cue. It is much more effective to always get the dog’s attention first and then cue the dog for a specific response such as to “come”. This strategy will assure that cues remain salient and affective.

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