Is this familiar?
You’ve been training tricks with your dog, and want to impress some visiting friends with his new skills.
You ask him for a high five.
He gives a high five, then he lies down, plays dead, rolls over… all the while throwing expectant looks at you, as if saying “is it this?!”
In other words, you ask for one specific behaviour, and he enthusiastically responds by giving you his entire learned repertoire of tricks.
What’s going on?
Well, in technical terms, he’s not under Stimulus Control.
In less technical terms, he hasn’t yet quite learned about cues.
Learning cues is difficult for animals.
We often underestimate the difficulty involved when animals learn to respond correctly to cues.
If you’re new to the concept of cued responses, it’s about the animal doing a specific behaviour when asked.
Sitting when you ask him to sit.
Coming when you call his name.
Waving a paw when you say “high five!”
That is, showing a specific response, corresponding to a specific signal from the trainer or environment. Part of understanding cues is also not waving a paw when you ask him to sit.
What’s so difficult about that, you may ask.
Well, it’s a two-step process:
- He needs to figure out that a certain behaviour pays off in the current context. For instance, that waving the left paw produces cookies, or that coming up to a person leads to getting a good scratch in just the right spot.
- Once that’s accomplished, he needs to figure out what it is about the context that let him know that a particular behaviour pays off right now. That is, it’s when mommy says “high five!” that waving the paw produces cookies – not when she’s silent, or when she says “roll over!”
In other words, if guests applaud, or you laugh, give eye contact, a cuddle, or indeed cookies after your dog does his little improvised performance, you’re training him to ignore your cues.
You’re teaching him that “when mommy looks expectantly at me and makes a noise, if I then show off some of my learned trick behaviours, good things will happen”.
And maybe that’s fine. After all, the guests are happy and your dog is happy.
But maybe, for some reason, you need the dog to respond to the cue with the correct behaviour – not just any random behaviour, or the whole repertoire.
Maybe you need a rock solid recall, even in distracting environments.
How to teach a cue.
Here’s the main outline of teaching the animal a cue (this list is not written in stone but may be changed depending on circumstances):
- train the response
- add the cue
- trick / alternate
I’m sharing a video illustrating this from my online course Getting Behaviour – the Foundations of Animal Training. For reference, we’re in module 5, all about cues, and this is chapter 4.
Åsa filmed all her training and edited out the breaks, so there’s no further training than what you see here. However, the dog is really clicker savvy and understands several other cues already – that makes a huge difference.
Previous students pointed out that I was a bit unclear as to what a probe is.
It’s giving the cue in a new context. Like when Åsa lay down the mat in the garage. Responding to the cue in a new context is difficult since it implies both discrimination (recognizing the cue as a relevant stimulus in relation to other stimuli) and generalization (responding to that cue in a completely new stimulus situation).
So, probing could be using the cue in a context where it was never used before (outdoor if trained indoors), tricking is testing it with similar nonsense-cues and generalization gradually adding more and more distractions and difficulty.
Here’s a very nice twist on adding the cue that reduces the potential frustration of the animal: having a default behaviour that the animal can fall back to, that you can reinforce by presenting the cue. Read Alexandra Kurland’s blog post here.
Achieving stimulus control
As you’re adding more distractions and generalizing to new situations, the animal should become gradually more fluent (accurate and consistent) in responding correctly to the new cue.
When you bring a response under stimulus control, you teach the animal to discriminate and generalize. You aim for high fluency and low latency, and some or all of the following criteria:
- the animal waits for the new cue – he’s no longer showing non-cued responses
- when the new cue is presented, the animal responds promptly
- the animal shows the unique response corresponding to the specific new cue, not some other response
- the animal doesn’t show that response to some other cue
Hopefully, these ideas might help clear up your cues, and bring better clarity for your animal!
I teach animal lovers how to get happy animals who are reasonably well behaved. Interested in learning more? Sign up below to get notified whenever I publish a new blog post, give free webinars, mini-courses or Masterclasses, run silly little experiments – or whenever one of my big courses are open for admission! I go into more detail about cues in the full Getting Behaviour course – find it here.