What is a Cue?

If you have done any training with me or another positive reinforcement trainer in recent years you might have noticed the word “command” mysteriously absent from our vocabulary.  In its place, “cue” is the term used to describe how we indicate to our learners what behaviour we would like them to perform.  So what’s the difference?  Is there a difference?  There is.

A command implies some sort of consequence if the behaviour is not performed.  Take “sit” for example.  Traditionally, one would give the command to “sit” and if the dog did not obey, their neck would be yanked up, their bum pushed down, or both simultaneously.  The problem with this method is this; even if you use some form of reward when the dog obeys, sometimes when the dog hears “sit” good things happen and sometimes when he hears “sit”, bad things happen.  He might not fully understand what “sit” means but chances are he is beginning to dislike hearing that word!  In fact, research has shown that if aversives are used when teaching a new behaviour it causes an animal to be less willing to perform that behaviour in the future.  This is true even if the rewards outweigh the aversives and even if the aversive was only a mild leash correction.

So how do cues differ?  A cue signals to the dog an opportunity to earn reinforcement.  For example, when he hears “sit”, if he sits, a reward is likely to follow.  If he doesn’t sit, all that happens is that he gets no reward.  This greatly increases the likelihood of him sitting when he is given the cue.  But what if he doesn’t?  That is simply information for us that more work needs to be done.  Either the dog doesn’t understand what is being asked of him, it is too difficult for him to perform under those particular circumstances, or he is not properly motivated.  It is then our job as trainer to determine why the dog was unsuccessful in that moment and take steps to set him up for success the next time we cue the behaviour.

Pain-free, force-free, fear-free training is not only the most humane method of teaching our dogs, it is also the most effective.  If your trainer is still using “commands”, it might be time to consider a new trainer!

Debra Reid RVT, KPA CTP

The Picky Eater

Let me guess, you love your dog to the moon and back and would do anything and everything in your power to help them live the longest, happiest life possible?  ME TOO!!!  The problem is that our best intentions can sometimes have unintended consequences.  Such is often true in the case of the PICKY EATER.  Let’s imagine for a moment that wee Fido isn't particularly hungry one morning.  You offer him breakfast as usual but he turns his nose up at it.  Being the doting pet parent you are and not wanting to leave him with nothing to eat all day, you offer him some leftover roast beef.  This, he scarfs down!  You feel better knowing he has at least eaten something and are reassured that he’s okay because he still has an appetite for roast beef.  Trust me, I get it!  Now let’s look at it from a behavioural perspective.  If the consequence of a behaviour is favourable, the behaviour is more likely to be repeated in the future - that’s just science.  So how does this scenario look from the dog’s perspective?  He was offered his regular meal.  Action:  He refused to eat it.  Consequence:  He was offered something better.  This positive consequence will increase the likelihood of him performing that same behaviour in the future.  And so, the picky eater is created.  The more times we sweeten the deal, the more we reinforce the holding out behaviour.  Have you ever gotten down on the floor and hand fed your dog?  How about taken his food back and heated it up for him?  Why would he ever eat what was offered straight out of the bowl again?!
So what do I do if my otherwise healthy dog has no interest in his breakfast?  I pick it up and put it back in the fridge until dinner.  While I don’t intentionally fast my dog as some do, I know that his system is capable of withstanding longer periods between meals than ours and so I don’t panic over a skipped meal.  I have also noticed that when dogs tummies are upset (likely due to eating something they shouldn't have!) they tend to go off of their food temporarily.  In my opinion, giving their system a break to let it settle down is probably doing more good in that situation than encouraging them to eat when they really don’t feel like it.  More often than not, by the time dinner rolls around they are ready to dive right in.  Of course I am not recommending you starve your dog.  If by the second day they still have no interest then I would recommend getting him (or her) looked at by a vet .
Perhaps your situation is a bit different and you are attempting to switch brands of food or convert your pup to a raw diet.  Gradually mixing more and more of the new in with the old might help.  Raw can present particular challenges, especially if “food” has always come in the form of kibble.  They may simply not recognize that chunk of raw meat as edible right away or even know how to approach eating it.  Organs seem to be especially aversive to some dogs (and who can blame them?!).  So what do you do if your dog picks them out and leaves them strewn about the floor?  Well, you clean the floor of course!  And say to yourself, “Oh well, I’ll try something different tomorrow”.  Since omitting organs from a raw diet is not an option, grinding and mixing them in with everything else so that they can’t be picked out might be worth trying.  Over time you will likely find that you are able to leave them in small chunks and then larger chunks as your dog gets used to the new textures.  The key here is to accept your failures as they happen and not try to fix them in the moment.  Fifi didn’t like dinner?  Okay, think of a different way to serve breakfast tomorrow.
Having a picky eater is no excuse for not providing a balanced diet.  Where there is a will, there is a way.  Keep up the great work, dedicated pet owners, your dogs are lucky to have you!  Just make sure you aren’t inadvertently working against yourself.  ;)

Debra Reid RVT, KPA CTP


Don't Try This At Home!

“I did then what I knew how to do.  Now that I know better, I do better.”  Maya Angelou

I find this quote very fitting for the world of dog training.  I think anyone who has been working with dogs for any amount of time can easily recall our more punishing past – most likely, as is the case for me, with much regret and sorrow.  But dwelling on the past does nothing to change it, all we can do is keep striving to improve and do the best we can with the information available at the time.  I have no doubt that ten years from now I will be doing things much differently, and that’s okay.

Scientists give us a better understanding of canine behaviour and how dogs learn, but I also learn so much from each of the wonderful dogs who have come into my own life.  Right now that special little guy is Cojack, poster child for The Learned Canine.  I couldn’t ask for a more eager, resilient learner.  He absolutely loves learning new things, and sometimes his willingness to do anything I ask can actually cloud my better judgement.  Training this behaviour was one of those times.

We did it!  (But please don’t try this at home.)

After mastering running across the hanging tires at the local parkette, I thought Cojack was ready for more of a challenge – enter, ‘the chains’.  As always, the key to teaching any new behaviour is to break it down into small, achievable steps and reinforce every step of the way.  Once he realized what I wanted him to do (after multiple jumps through the chains), he was very eager to climb to the top.  However, there was a problem once he got there as the platform at the top meant a larger and steeper last step.  I noticed this as soon as he got up there and intended to make some sort of adjustment to make it easier for him.  He, however, was not to be deterred.  He was so determined that I let him try – and keep trying.  This was my mistake.  Realizing the physical limitations of my dog and taking them into account before asking him to do anything was my responsibility.  That, after all, is why he is so confident in himself and so trusting in me in the first place.  He tries so hard because I had never set him up to fail before.

I am not proud to say that he fell – more than once, to the ground from the top of the chains.  He then developed a fear of the top step which I had to work hard to get him over even after I added an additional make-shift rung at the top.  Add to this the fact that his nails got stuck between the links in the chain on more than one occasion, and it is a wonder he is still willing to climb those things at all.  And so, in retrospect, not only should I have taken his physical capabilities into account before beginning this training but I probably shouldn’t have asked him to do it at all given the potential risk of injury to his feet.  In the end I persisted because I knew he could handle it – and was as eager as I was to master this new challenge.  However, putting these pressures on another dog could have detrimental effects – on their physical well-being, their willingness to try new things in the future, and your relationship.  So, enjoy the video but please, don’t try this at home!

Debra Reid RVT, KPA CTP