By James Turner

Several years past, when I took my animal training and behavioral program my teacher, Julie Shaw, asked me (in front of the whole class) “What is the importance of a cue?” I had to trust it was not a question to trick me up because Julie always set us up for success. But it did rattle me. I mean, I stood there with my dog, leash in hand, everyone focused on me and I was about to be embarrassed. I dug deep into the training Julie had already given me and, somehow I found three thoughts which I expressed and hoped they would be what she was looking for. When I was finished Julie sat back and said, “You should write something about that.” Wow, Julie, my teacher, the best of the best in the animal behavior world, said that to me. Me, a student. The novice of my class. Everyone else in my class had dog backgrounds and for them, I felt this was a refresher course. For me, well, what does a former pastor, therapist, and law enforcement person know about four legged animal behavior? I felt like I had “behaviorally stupid” stamped on my forehead.

Well, I have written on several different subjects since I graduated, and I did graduate “the most improved student” in Julie’s classes. Now, I’m telling you, one did not graduate Julie’s class easily. She was no push over. To graduate Julie’s class gives one high standing in the Karen Pryor Academy. Julie told me one time, “I will not graduate you if I cannot feel confident to refer someone to you. You will be a reflection of my making a referral.” I thought, “I’d never graduate.” Well, I did and I value every challenge Julie gave to me.

So, cues. My answer. Pet owners do not always realize the importance of the words they use with their pet. Our words carry more importance, both negative and positive, than we realize. Do you know, you should never use your pets name in a scolding manner? If Fido does not like his bath and you have everything ready, you should never call, “Fido, come here.” then turn on the hose or put him in the water. Guess what Fido is going to do when you call his name three hours later? Run to you? Think again. He’ll run from you to under the bed or behind a chair, or he’ll crouch low and almost crawl to you. Then what do I do? You slowly walk to Fido and gently lead him to his bath place, reward him before you begin, during and after. Then you can say his name, “Fido, go play.” Never use his name in an aversive way.

But this is not about a pet’s name. Primarily it is about words. In the human world words have meaning and consequences. In the dog world it is no different. This is so important because dogs have a predisposition to humans. It is proven that dogs would rather be with their owner than with their counter. Dogs understand us, they come to understand our words and how we are feeling. They interpret that slight raise of the eyebrow or furrow of the forehead. Their behavior is often the result of how and what we speak. Now, I’m not going to write anything new, anything we trainers do not already know, but I do hope that I can give a different flavor, a fresh importance or awareness to pet owners.

So, what is a cue? A cue is any action, verbal, visual or auditory sound that produces a corresponding behavior Fido performs. Some cues are intentional, others are not. Often I have a client believe that their verbal cue is eliciting a particular behavior only for me to help him or her realize the real cue is a movement. When a dog performs a behavior when new do, say, or sound something, it is because that dog has paired that behavior with that word, sound, or action. When a dog sits when I say, “sit” it is because I have successfully paired the action of sit with the word. The word doesn’t matter, the pairing does. So I could just as well say “pepper” or “banana.” I could capture Fido’s sitting, reward that, and Fido repeats the sit. Now I could begin using the word “banana” when he sits. Banana then becomes the cue for sit. Someone can tell Fido to sit and Fido looks clueless. The friend asks you, “Can I have a banana?” and Fido sits.

But what I am more interested in here is not the definition of a cue, but rather the transaction of the cue. What does a cue express? What is it about the cue that the animal wants to respond to? The operative word here is “want.”  Some cues can be ominous and foreboding. Fido can perform a behavior out of fear or out of respect. I can train either as the boss or a partner. I can make a dog obey anything I say, but that is not the criterion. So my thoughts here are strictly and solely a force-free philosophy and perspective. These thought will not fit into a traditional or balanced training outlook. And, if you are an owner, but not a trainer, I want you to understand that if one advertises themselves as a “positive” trainer that does not mean they are a “force-free” trainer.

Here are the three dynamics of a cue. Others could list five or eight. I am not trying to be psychologically thorough here. I am not writing for a behavioral journal. This was my attempt, in class, to grasp the concept of a cue and its importance, because the cue is not just a passive transaction. Something happens when a cue is given to Fido and I hope that something is not just about “getting” a behavior but is something very good for both the one giving the cue and the one receiving the cue.

So, “Jim,” Julie asked, “What is the importance of a cue?”

First, when I give a cue it expresses to Fido that I have CONFIDENCE he CAN perform it. Therefore, I know and Fido knows that he is familiar with the behavior for which I am asking. I also know Fido has confidence he can perform it. When I give the cue I know Fido is mentally moving into familiar territory. This is the value of Operant Conditioning or Behavioral Modification. We first train the behavior. When Fido is offering to us that behavior 8 to 10 times a minute, all depending on the difficulty of the behavior, we then begin pairing a word to the behavior. All communication flows in a loop, from me to Fido and back to me.

Because I know Fido knows the behavior when I pair with it a word, visual or sound, then when I offer the word I have confidence Fido can do it. The only reasons he might not is 1. Physical, 2. Mental. If he is incapable of performing the behavior then I need to change what I am doing. If I persist I will set Fido up for failure. If Fido won’t sit I need to figure out why. I need to take Fido to the vet and find the reason. I cannot persist in a behavior that is causing Fido pain or discomfort. Ruling out physical or mental conditions then I have look at what I am or am not doing. I am either not being clear enough, my reward is not high enough, or my reward rate is not often enough. The sure fact is, the problem is not Fido so don’t punish Fido. Like my good friend, Dave Thatcher says, “Roll up a newspaper and with it, hit yourself.”

When I give a cue, if I have properly set the behavior up, there is a MUTUAL CONFIDENCE THAT FIDO CAN PERFORM WHAT I ASK.


Second, there is a TRUST that Fido WILL perform it.

He now trusts I will not ask him to do something he cannot perform.

By the time the cue is introduced I have worked out all the imperfections of the behavior. Most of those imperfections have been mine and I have corrected my poor communication or faulty expectations. There is no, “I want him to sit and…” I work out what is not clear communication on my part. I have worked out what is rewarding and what is not. Fido decides what is rewarding, not me. So I have to really work to understand Fido. I have figured out what works for Fido and what doesn’t. I know him and he knows me. He knows I am fair and correct myself. Because he knows that Fido begins to correct himself. He may begin to lay down when I say “sit.” On his way down he suddenly changes his movement and pushes himself up into a sit. I didn’t have to say, “No no,” or “Uh uh.” When that happens I get a big smile, give him 4 or 5 treats, a lot of praise, and he sits looking at me with a big smile and sometimes celebrates with a few spins. I never see Fido crouch with ears laid back, mouth closed, embarrassed and fearful. We party together.

So by the time I introduce the cue I not only have confidence that he can do it. I TRUST that he WILL do it. This is why this method is so enjoyable. Fido responds because he wants to, often times Fido can’t wait for the cue. I have seen Fido get so into the training that he literally shakes waiting for me to give the cue. His eyes are bright, his mouth is open, and when I say, “sit,” he quickly sits looking at me as if to say, “I did it. Aren’t you proud of me?” And of course I am. On looking owners are surprised, often shocked, that Fido responded to the cue. They had given the cue, yelled the cue thinking Fido didn’t hear, jerked on a chain while yelling, to make him do the behavior, and walked away cussing Fido. I work a few minutes, always a soft gentle voice. Patient when Fido is reserved or afraid and in a few minutes he is responding. I have had owners with tears ask, “How do you do that? I can’t believe what I just saw.”

What happened was, I communicated with (not to) Fido. We had a conversation. Fido had a Eureka moment, “This person is actually listening to me. I can trust him.” Because I communicated my trust in him he began to demonstrate his trust in me. Some dogs have never felt trust. I can see it in the dog’s eyes. They suddenly glisten and look straight at you, making eye contact. A lightbulb turns on behind those beautiful eyes. I got so excited about this one time that I had to call Julie Shaw and share with her my excitement

You see, it is not just that I trust Fido because of my work, Fido trusts me because of our work together. And it is work. When I leave a home Fido goes to his bed and sleeps like a puppy because he has worked hard and is tired. He has studied me and has had to process a lot of materiel. He knows me now and trusts me. He trusts me when a behavior is challenging or uncomfortable, but Fido knows I will not ask of him anything that will hurt him or is dangerous. He is willing to work hard for me. So there is a MUTUAL TRUST THAT FIDO WILL PERFORM THE BEHAVIOR I ASK.

Thirdly. There is REWARD when he DOES the behavior. Even now with my Nekayah, when I give her a cue she is relaxed in doing the behavior. There are reward for both the human and the dog when they have that relationship of partnership. We call it “THE HUMAN ANIMAL BOND (HAB). There is nothing like it. Fido begins to anticipate the cue. In a store I can ask Nekayah to “lay” and before the word is out she is on her way down, mouth open, looking at me and waiting for the next cue. I feel one with her and she feels one with me. Nekayah has learned to go potty on cue. Before we go into a store (she is a service dog) I take her to go potty. She sniffs and goes then runs back to the car, jumps in, gives me a kiss and we go park and go in the store. She is happy. Nekayah is emotionally well balanced and we are both rewarded with her doing the behavior and my seeing the behavior performed. We are one, partners. She feels it and I feel it. Cues are communication in a loop. It is not me “telling” her to do something and she does it or else. I ask (cue) her to do something communicating confidence and trust in her, she listens and performs the behavior I request, communicating back to me her confidence and trust in me. Then she bounds back to me happy and content as we move on together into the store or wherever we go.

If Nekayah does not perform the behavior I know something is wrong. I take her to have her checked. She knows I will not push the issue and will take care of her. This has happened and when the medical issue was resolved, she responded to my cues without hesitation.

In training a dog there is one I have one inexorable law. It is this. The HUMAN ANIMAL BOND. Anything, an act, a word, a training technique, a training tool that would threaten that bond is anathema. I will neither incorporate it, nor allow it to be incorporated. There is no behavior worth getting if it harms the dog in any way. I have actually seen dogs look at me with that “thank you” look in their eyes.

This is my interpretation of what transpires when I give a cue to mu dogs or a dog I am working with. I try to help the owner understand this transaction so he/she can appreciate what is really going on. Training is never a one way communication. I hear the dog I work with. He/she is talking to me. We are having a conversation from the second I enter to the second that I leave. Often times the communication bring tears to my eyes and makes my heart swell.

My hope is that this will give your interactions with Fido a new dimension. If you do not have this relationship with your Fido examine what you are doing. Figure it out. If and when you do your relationship with your one in a million Fido will be fulfilling to both of you, and you will find your training to be much less a struggle but actually enjoyable. Not only will you be giving cues to Fido, but you will realize Fido is giving cues to you, making your relationship mutually enjoyable and fun. A good indicator is that if it is not fun for you it is not fun for Fido and if it is not fun for Fido the training needs to stop. He may be sick or hurting. And you will have a wonderful, fulfilling bond of mutual trust and respect.

After all. Isn’t that the reason we acquire Fido. If you do not have that believe me you can and more. That’s why I do what I do.


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