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