Dog Training Question ~ When Do I Add a Cue?

So often people ask me: “When do I add a cue?”

As a guide, when we can predict our dog will perform a behaviour, and we love the way he is performing that behaviour, we can put a cue on it.

Crate Games is good to use as an example. We are shaping our dogs to go into the crate with a fun game of choice. When our dog is racing into the crate with speed, and we can predict he will do this, we can put a cue on the behaviour. The cue I use is ‘in-da-kennel’.  Of course, Crate Games is FAR more than shaping our dogs to go into a crate however everyone would be familiar with wanting to see their dog race into a crate with speed and joy on cue.

Adding a cue prior to when we love the way the dog is performing a behaviour opens up the possibility that the cue becomes attached to “incomplete learning”.

Before you add a cue be certain you ask yourself these two questions.

  • Do I really need a cue right now?  Are there environment prompts that will encourage the dog to perform correctly (such as your body position for “back up” or the presence of poles to encourage weaving)?
  • Does my dog have D.A.S.H while performing the behaviour?  In other words… does my dog understand the criteria I have outlined for this behaviour in any environment without lures or prompts from me.

If you answer “no” to those two questions, no sweat, you should know that while you are adding strength to your dog’s understanding of what you want, there are already other subtle cues in place that are prompting his response. The environment you are working in, your body position or the equipment you are using all are triggers to the desired response. These “triggers” will prompt your dog’s behaviour until a time he is ready for you to add a formal verbal cue.

If your answer is yes to the above two questions, then ask yourself a third:

  • Do you love your dog’s current performance of the desired behaviour?

It is always best not to add a cue to the dog’s performance until you love what the dog is giving you.

Any struggles, speed issues, sloppiness your dog has at this point may be attached to the cue you give him. In other words, if he continues to miss weave pole entries as you are training and you are saying “weave, weave, weave” to him; the cue “weave, weave, weave” may develop the meaning to your dog of “go ahead and miss your entry!” 

When you can answer “yes” to all three questions, you are ready to add your cue!  Wait until you know for certain your dog is about to offer the response then say your cue once, quietly. Of course, this cue will be meaningless to your dog. A cue only has “power” once it is attached to a favourable outcome for the dog (ie reinforcement). After a few repetitions of hearing this new cue, performing his known behaviour and earning reinforcement the dog will make the connection!

If the dog has had ample reinforcement in the past for his performance your voice should not interrupt his behaviour and you can reward him as usual.  If however, the dog stops when he hears you speak wait him out.  Resist the temptation to repeat the cue.  You want the dog to learn that one cue will prompt one response.  If you are patient it will only take a few repetitions before the dog will confidently perform the task immediately following your cue.  It may take many more repetitions before your new cue will prompt the dog to perform the behaviour whenever you ask, in any environment but that too will come with patience and practice.

Crate Games teaches our dogs a release cue, builds clarity as well as confidence for duration behaviours.

Replacing A Prior Cue

This process becomes much easier if you are attempting only to add a new cue to one the dog already knows. For example, if you want to teach the dog a hand signal for his “down” behaviour and he has an amazing understanding for the verbal cue down.

Already remember this; the dog must see the new cue FIRST. Yes at this stage it is meaningless, but the old cue will add meaning for him.

New Cue + Old Cue + Reinforcement (if dog complies) = Desired Response to New Cue Alone.

Be certain when you do this that you do not make the mistake of pairing the new and old cue together. It is a definite two-step process; “new cue” – 1/2 second pause – “old cue”. Plan to fade the old cue quickly.

Have you cued a behaviour too early, or wish you had a cue but have not been sure about the process?  Is there a cue you have but want to change? Let me know in the comments.

Crate Games ONLINE

As I noted above, Crate Games is w-a-y more than just getting your dog to go into a crate… it’s how we can get a 10-week old puppy to not chase a cookie when we want him to hold a sit-stay, or not jumping on your guests, or to wait at a door and not just bust through it!

Regardless of whether you are introducing a puppy to a crate for the first time, a rescue dog, or retraining an older dog, Crate Games presents a clear plan to teach your dog how much fun life is when he plays along with your game.

Choice based training is a real thing… the gift of allowing your dog to choose is one that I have been advocating for 20+ years. Set the environment up for the dog to succeed, offer reinforcement for the choices you want to see repeated and then test the understanding. In my mind it’s no longer dog training it’s just a “game within a game”.  Crate Games is a step in progressing and integrating choice into our dogs’ lives.

For me, GAMES and choice have been the answer when training my dogs. Training this way has always been a win-win for both the dog and me. I would love it to be this way for everyone because, as I have said over and over, my ultimate goal is to help dogs worldwide be better understood by their owners.

Crate Games has long been foundational for my own dog training, and a game of choice I have taught for over 20 years in person and through my DVD. Crate Games is extensively used and recommended by dog trainers and professional dog care providers around the globe.

For over a decade my Crate Games DVD has been easily accessible to everyone, but as technology moves on we have had more and more requests to have Crate Games available as an online resource.

We listened! Click here to learn more about Crate Games Online.

You can visit my vlog  “The Transfer of Value in Dog Training” where I use the model of Crate Games to cover the importance of when we name behaviours and the transfer of value.

Today I am grateful for the 20 years of lessons that the dogs playing Crate Games around the world have taught us. My own puppies, rescues, and visiting dogs here at the Say Yes Ranch, plus the dogs who share their lives with my students, have flourished with the clarity of Crate Games.

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