On Monday, I listened in on the first half of a really good webinar by Kathy Sdao (a talented dog trainer and behaviorist) on cues: the science behind them and how to put behavior on cue correctly. What is a cue? A cue is a discriminative stimulus (a hand motion, a spoken word, a yellow hat you wear) that lets your animal know if they offer a certain behavior at that time they can earn a reinforcer. For instance, when I say “walk”, if Dragon walks forward immediately and calmly he has a chance to earn reinforcement.
When I went out to work with Dragon today, I played around a bit with my cues, presenting them more independently, to determine what he truly knows and finds salient. Right away I noticed that I am not completely consistent with my presentation of cues, sometimes I present the hand signal simultaneously with my verbal for walk or whoa or trot, and other times I present the verbal first (what I mean to do ) , closely followed by the hand motion. Despite my own lack of consistency in this area he does quite well. There’s no doubt he will do better once I do better;)
The problem lots of people have with cues, beside inconsistency, is thinking the behavior happens BECAUSE of the cue. That there is some sort of magic implicit in the word or the gesture. Like a magic spell or incantation, say the words and presto! But that’s a misconception, because behavior is consequence driven. Behavior happens because of a solid reinforcement history. The cue, which is put in later, is simply a “green light” that lets the animal know what behavior to perform in order to earn reinforcement.
Here’s a short video of me playing with Dragon’s cues for walk and whoa to untangle what is meaningful to me vs. what is actually meaningful to him.