A cue is a signal that is used to get a behavior to happen. Cues are a way that we communicate with our dogs and get them to do the things that we like. They can be done verbally or signaled. Some examples of verbal cues are “sit,” “down,” “come,” “stay” and “leave it.” Signaled cues for us are palm up for sit, palm down for down, and palm straight out for stay.
How to teach your dog a cue
The first thing you need to do is select the behavior you’d like to teach. For most behaviors it is easy to get it started with a food lure. A food lure is a piece of food that your dog gets to lick and nibble on while you get him to do the behavior you’d like. Once he does the behavior, he gets the food lure. Once he is doing this reliable we can start to add in the cue. If we were using “sit” as the example, we could have started with the dog in a stand (on all fours) and we would have had him follow the food lure as we brought it over his head and towards his rear. This should have caused him to fall into a sitting position. As soon as he is doing this reliably (4/5 attempts) we could add in the cue. Our cue for this is lifting our empty hand palm up over the dog’s head. The recommendation is to just hold it there and wait for the dog to sit. Once he does, reward him with a treat from your other hand. If we wanted to go a step further and get the dog to do the behavior for a verbal cue then we would want to make sure the dog is doing the behavior reliably for the hand signaled cue. If he can do it for the hand signal 4/5 times then we can add it in. The way to do this is to say your verbal cue first, wait a few seconds and then follow with that hand signal. This will take several repetitions for the dog to get it. The point is to get the dog to see that the verbal cue actually predicts the hand signal. Once he gets it he will start to do the behavior before you have the chance to give him the hand signal.
How to ensure your cue is reliable
Once you’ve got your behavior on cue there are a couple things you want to do. The first thing is you want to make sure that the behavior cued always gets rewarded. If the behavior is not rewarded it will stop happening. This is because behaviors happen because of the consequence that comes from the behavior. You can reward the behaviors a few different ways. You can use food, toys, attention or other environmental reinforcers. Depending on the situation one will work better than the other.
The second thing you want to do is make sure that you only give the cue one time. Once you’ve got your dog responding to a verbal cue, say it once and see what happens. If the behavior doesn’t happen, instead of repeating the cue, give the hand signal that you worked on prior to the verbal cue. This will increase the probability that the behavior will happen without losing the value of the verbal cue. Once again, make sure you reward the behavior. The point of only giving the cue once is because the more you give it without getting the response, the less value the cue has. This means that when you need it to happen, it probably won’t. It’s the same for a hand signal. If you repeat your hand signal over and over your dog will start to tune it out.
What to do if it just isn’t working
If your dog was responding to your cues and all of the sudden stops it could be for a couple reasons.
One reason is because the environment may be too distracting. Distractions are competing motivators. This means that your dog finds those distractions appealing and wants to investigate them further. The best way to get your dog to respond when they are around is to practice your cues with them far away. A good way to do this is to introduce the cues in your home. Once they are happening reliably, go outside to the least distracting part of your yard and practice them. If you need to, go back to the beginning and lure a few. If you do have to go back to a lure to start, try to quickly get back to the hand signal. We don’t want our dogs to be “lure dependent.” (Lure dependency basically means that a dog will not do the behavior unless food is in sight.) Once your dog is doing the cues reliably, go to another part of your yard where the distractions may be a bit more intense. Follow the same pattern as mentioned above.
Another reason may be because your rate of reinforcement is too low. This basically means that you’re moving a little too slow and not giving your dog enough reinforcement to continue with the behaviors. This typically happens when there are competing motivators. The best way to get your dog to respond to the cues is to ask for a behavior, reward it and repeat. This will increase the chances that your dog is staying focused on you and responding to your cues.
Your dog will never respond to your cues with 100% reliability, so don’t expect it. Remember that they are animals and they have their own minds. The best way to get it to happen is to use a high rate of reinforcement, proof it in different environments with a variety of distractions and to go to the previous step if the first cue doesn’t work. (Verbal, Hand Signal and then Food Lure) By always rewarding the behaviors you ensure that the chances of them happening again in the future are high. To set yourself up to always reward the behaviors it’s a good idea to have a treat bag on you and treat jars throughout your home. Also remember that you can always leverage the thing that your dog is motivated to have. If you follow these guidelines you will have a dog that responds reliably to your cues.