Cues: What are they to your dog?

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Anyone who has trained dogs in any capacity for more than a few years remembers when we used to refer to the cue as a command. Many don’t see the distinction, but there is one. A cue is a marker that indicates something should happen where a command is a demand for a behavior to take place. The idea of a cue is more akin to what we believe your dog understands words to be. They are not a language so much as they are a marker that tells the dog something should happen. Think of it like the gun that goes off telling contestants that they should begin the race.

This distinction is important because it changes our perspective about what our dog actually understands. If we give our dog a command and they disobey we may come to the conclusion that they are being disobedient. But the truth is, when dogs understand what we want from them and there is motivation to do so, they will usually do it.

If we give a dog a cue and they don’t do what the cue indicates, we can assume the dog does not understand the cue sufficiently. The dog is not ready, and needs more training. This puts the ball back in our court. We need to figure out how to help the dog understand.

Our dogs do not have a verbal language like we do. While they may surprise us in the amount they can understand, it may be unfair to expect them to understand that the noises we make are words, and that words have individual meanings. Dogs can just as easily be trained with whistles. They learn that certain patterns mean certain things should happen. This is distinct from language.

Because cues are meaningless to our dogs until we train them, it does no good to throw them out before our dog is already performing the behavior we are looking for. The best way to train your dog is to get the behavior you are looking for, then teach your dog the auditory or physical cue for the behavior. Once we connect the two we can gradually reduce the rate of reinforcement until the dog is performing the cued behavior every time.

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Keeping Kids and Dogs Safe-From Each Other – The Other End of the Leash

Keeping Kids and Dogs Safe-From Each Other – The Other End of the Leash
— Read on

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Keeping your dog safe during the cold months

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The Baby in the Bath Water


If you’ve been around me you know that I bristle at the use of the term “dominance” when explaining a dog’s behavior.  Often I hear dog trainers say that dominance doesn’t exist.  This isn’t exactly accurate.  So why do so many trainers refuse to use the term?

There is a theory in some circles of the dog training world that dogs behave in certain ways because they are trying to be pack leader.  This results in dog handlers and trainers attempting to put a dog in his place by using firm tactics and often harsh treatment.  All is done with the welfare of the dog in mind.

The roots of these theories can be found in early studies of wild canids – specifically wolves.  But there were flaws in these studies, and in their application to dog training.  The wolves in the studies were not members of a pack.  They had no relationship to each other, and when put in a territory together much fighting ensued.  In addition, dogs are not wolves.  They are genetically related with an common ancestor, and it is possible for them to mate, but physiologically and behaviorally they are very different.

Dominance is a thing but maybe not the thing you think.  When it comes to behavioral psychology, dominance is by definition the relationship one has to the resources around you.  The problem with using this as a way to label a dog’s personality is that dominance is very fluid in dogs.  One dog may have all the toys, but defer to his housemate when it comes to attention from humans.  The dog who has the resource is usually the dog who is dominant over it. He has it, and he keeps it because his housemates leave him alone.  In dog culture, as in human, it’s rude to come up and snatch anything I have in my possession.  It’s rude behavior, not dominance, that starts most fights when it comes to resources.

Image you and a group of friends go out to a nice restaurant.  You order your favorite dish, and it arrives.  Maybe you get a bite or two in your mouth before one of your friends grabs your plate and starts eating your food.  If you have worked with me you know I’m frugal.  I rarely eat and restaurants, and it’s a huge treat to eat delicious food that has been cooked by a professional.  I’m likely to stab you with a fork for this behavior!  I certainly won’t be going out to dinner with you any time soon.  But my personality hasn’t changed nor is it defined by my reaction.  In fact, it’s incredibly out of character for me to so much as raise my voice at someone.  Would you eat with someone who grabbed food off your plate, or took your entire plate?  The next time you went out you would probably leave them off the invitation list.  It’s just rude.  Regardless of the species, it’s not socially acceptable and it’s understandable when our dogs don’t want to put up with it.

I’m going to get into trouble with some people for saying this, but dominance exists.  And positive punishment sometimes works.  But using either in your strategy to modify your dog’s behavior is asking for trouble.  You might get away with it.  You might find zero side effects, and go forward recommending these methods to others.  But many times you end up with issues, and sometimes serious issues.  They CAN work, but it doesn’t mean they are the best, most expedient, and most humane ways to bring about behavior changes.

Dominance is not a personality trait, and it’s not particularly useful in addressing a dog’s “dog-ness”.  I urge you to take the time to do it right, and to train your dog what you would like for them to do so they don’t choose behaviors that you don’t like.  Your dog is going to be a dog.  Your dog’s dog behavior is probably going to get under your skin sometimes because they are a totally different species with totally different values.  But with time and good training using positive reinforcement, you’ll find you have a happy, healthy companion.  Your dog should not just be a joy to deal with because he doesn’t misbehave, he/she should be full of joy.

Train your dog and don’t worry about dominance, because it’s not important.  If not with me, then go search for a trainer at,, or  Your dog will thank you with his tail.

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When the Cue Just Won’t Work

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It’s unfortunate, but sometimes we train a cue only to find that it later becomes useless. If you train enough, this may have happened to you. But why does it happen, and what can we do to fix it?

In dog training sometimes we forget that the immediate consequence of a behavior is what causes that behavior to occur more or less often. We can, by accident, teach a dog to ignore something we have previously taught by pairing the cue with something the dog doesn’t like, or by taking the rewards away too quickly. Once this happens we have work to do in order to fix the problem.

I think of an example with a relative where we trained a very strong recall (come when called). The dog would recall even when playing with other dogs from across a distance the length of a football field. Yay! We had trained the recall and it was working! One day I was visiting, and I called the dog from about 20 feet and she ran the other direction. She would not come to me. The handler told me that her recall had fallen apart in the past two weeks. It was heartbreaking, because the recall had been a thing of beauty.

Upon discussion, I found out that the recall was only being used for one purpose: to call the dog from her romp through a twenty acre area of woods full of deer and squirrels and rabbits, and then to put the dog in her crate, usually when her human was going to leave the house for a few hours. This dog loved to run, did not like the crate much, and she really hated being left behind. So the cue came to mean that she would lose her freedom and her companion.

Had the handler used the cue a majority of the time for reasons the dog enjoyed rather than saving it solely for something the dog considered very unpleasant, we would have been ok. But now we are faced with a poisoned cue. And not coming when called is a huge deal, especially when you live where the dog can get very far from home and still be on the property.

Losing a cue does not mean we have lost the underlying behavior. A behavior taught with positive reinforcement will not just disappear, but we may have to go back and do some remedial work with our dogs. The second time around, we need to be very careful what the resulting reward or punishment is for the dog. Remember: we don’t get to define this. Our dog does. Some dogs like their crates. The dog in the example above did not particularly like it, and she really didn’t like being alone. So she was being punished for coming. Now we need to retrain her and avoid this scenario.

The first thing I’m going to do here is completely abandon using the cue that’s been poisoned. Unfortunately it was her name. I will talk to her and use her name when I praise her and love on her, but I will not use it for recall.

Next, I’m going to start from the beginning and retrain the behavior using a different cue. My choice here is actually a whistle because it’s loud and very different from the original cue. Because she knows the behavior, it’s going to progress faster than the initial training. I’m going to be sure to repeat the behavior several times a day with a really awesome reward and a big party every time she comes. This “practice” is not going to end once the behavior has been trained. We want to be sure that positive association sticks with her all her life.

There will be times we will need to call her for things she doesn’t like. That’s okay. Ideally, we will call her, give her lots of reinforcement for coming, and after about five or ten minutes, put her in her crate. The separation of the recall from the ultimate goal (for us) of having her safely in her crate must be enough that she doesn’t relate the two. If my relative is running late somewhere every once in a while and violates this rule it’s not going to set us back too much, but we need to be sure that the good results far outweigh the bad ones.

Another way we can practice a behavior when it’s in a situation where our dog isn’t going to want to listen is to reward them with the freedom to go back to whatever fantastic activity they were enjoying. For example, those times at the park we must always take care to call her from time to time, reward her, and then send her right back to her play. That way recall doesn’t mean the fun is over. At least not every time.

Recall is an easy cue to poison because we are trying to manage our dogs and get them under control, and they may not want that. But other cues can be poisoned as well. The best way to avoid it is to be sure that a cue that has been well trained is rewarded (results in something the dog likes) far more often than it is punished (results in something the dog finds unpleasant), and that it is never punished with something that results in pain or fear (physical punishment, shock, yelling at the dog, etc). If a cue hasn’t been well trained then nothing unpleasant should ever be the result of performing the behavior. Remember: reinforcement (good stuff) builds behavior, and punishment breaks it (and generally confuses the dog). In the scope of this post I am talking about behaviors that have already been trained.

Another example from my training past is a client who, against my recommendation but with complete compassion and understanding on my part for her desire to let her dog run, decided to have an invisible fence installed because a physical fence was impossible. Several behaviors we had taught began falling apart. I wasn’t sure what was going on until I showed up early one day and found the fence trainer* there working with the dog. I watched as the trainer used cues we had taught to lure the dog towards the fence (“let’s go” for leash work, “come” for recall, with a sit or two thrown in). The dog was finding the entire experience completely unpleasant because he was receiving shock from the collar. Our cues had disappeared because they had been associated with the impending shock from the fence. We had to go back and do some remedial work, but within a few sessions we had changed our cues, I had had a discussion with the fence trainer about his choice of words, and the dog was doing well, other than he didn’t enjoy being outside as much as he had when I first met him.

The bottom line is we need to be very cognitive of the consequences our dog faces for doing the things we have trained him/her to do. If the consequences are negative, the dog is going to “stop listening” to us. If the results are almost entirely positive the dog will continue to perform. And finally, if we screw it up, and we all make mistakes from time to time, we can and should go back and fix it so that we can enjoy our dogs more!

*I put this asterisk here because these folks are very well meaning, but their job is to install fences and teach dogs where they are, and they really don’t have an intimate knowledge of behavior. The gentleman I was dealing with was very nice and absolutely loved dogs, but had no idea why using our cues was a problem until I explained it to him.

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May I Pet Your Dog?

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Interview with Dawn Sims: Dachshunds

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But he already knows this!


Every dog trainer hears this.  The frustrated exclamation of a client whose dog isn’t doing as they are told.  About 95% of our clients assert a dog’s knowledge of a cue that he just won’t follow.  They can be both correct and incorrect.  The dog may not understand the cue.  Or the dog may have learned the cue but has at some point learned to ignore it.  Or, in some cases, the dog has a pretty good understanding of what you want, but the cue has been poisoned.

So, what’s going on when a dog doesn’t listen?

They don’t really understand what you want.

Sometimes the dog really hasn’t learned what you think he’s learned.  It’s possible that your dog’s success was just a matter of a few well-timed guesses (or accidents).  In our enthusiasm, we can believe that our dog has learned the cue when they really haven’t.  This is an easy one to fix if it’s just started.  Just take a step back, and practice the cue some more until the dog knows it.

Your dog may also not understand what a cue means if you change some variable.  He may have learned that when she makes the “sit” noise when I’m in the living room I am supposed to sit on this rug”.  We may have thought they understood that we wanted the bottom down on the floor regardless of where we were or who was around, but the dog has really only learned a behavior in a particular context.  The answer?  When you switch a variable, go back to the beginning as if the dog never learned the cue, and work up.  After working through a few variables your dog will start to realize that sit means sit no matter where he is.

Changing a variable can be as small as not holding your hand in the same way as you usually do.  If you make the same gesture with your hand every time you ask the dog to sit and one day begin leaving the gesture out, your training is very likely to fall apart.  Decide what your cue is going to be, decide what the result you are looking for is going to be, and stick with it.

They have decided that your cue is irrelevant.

If the result of a specific cue is not reliable your dog will learn to ignore it.  This is the “boy who cried wolf” problem.  Imagine a parent who has become accustomed to a child running around yelling “Mommy!  Mommy!  Mommy!” without actually needing the attention of his mother.  The mother is likely going to learn to tune the child out and go on about her day.  The cue becomes irrelevant.  During training, your dog is trying to figure out what parts of the noises you make are meaningful, and what parts are not meaningful.  Sometimes they make the wrong choice.  This happens a lot when we try to go too fast in training and the dog isn’t successful.  We repeat the cue over and over again while the dog fails to perform the behavior.  Eventually, the dog decides that the cue is not relevant and begins to ignore it.  This is different than deliberate defiance.  The dog just doesn’t understand what is expected of him.

The cue has been poisoned.

Sometimes a cue has been taught, but we have inadvertently created a situation where the dog does not enjoy performing the behavior because the cue has been associated with something the dog doesn’t like.  This often results from using mixed messages in training.  Sometimes we ask for something and the dog does it, and she gets a reward.  Yay!  Bingo!  Enough repetitions and we have got a solid behavior. But sometimes if the dog doesn’t perform quickly enough, or is not perfect in her response we react with frustration and even punishment.  The dog is asked to sit, and when it doesn’t happen instantly gets a leash jerk.  Enough repetitions of this and the cue is poisoned.  The dog has created a negative association with the cue and does not want to perform it.

In our next blog post, we’ll look at ways we can deal with the poisoned cue…

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Cooperation Versus Coercion — Wilde About Dogs

I’d like you to imagine that you are a young, not-yet-verbal child who is entering a foster home. Naturally, you are a nervous about meeting your new foster parents, and wonder what life will be like. You don’t yet know what will be expected of you or how you will be treated. And since you’re […]

via Cooperation Versus Coercion — Wilde About Dogs

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