Transferring Cues in Dog Training

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There are times when you would like to teach a new cue for a particular behavior. Maybe you want to add a verbal cue to a hand signal or vice versa. Transferring cues in dog training really is not that difficult to do. I’ll explain below. First, I want to remind you about some cue basics.

Cues for behaviors. What are they?

teaching and transferring cues in dog trainingScientifically speaking, a cue is simply a stimulus that elicits a behavior. Discrimination is the tendency for learned behavior to occur in one situation but not in other situations. (Learning & Behavior, Paul Chance) Therefore, a change in the environment known as a discriminative stimulus becomes a cue for that behavior to be set into motion.

It is important to remember that it is the consequences of that behavior, positive or negative, that determine the future probability of that behavior occurring. The cue is simply an indicator to the learner that that window of time for that consequence to happen is now.

In other words, the cue is like a green light that tells the animal NOW is the time to do something in order to get something it values or move away from something it wants to avoid.

Discriminitive (environmental) cues are learned all the time from our pets. They can learn that the doorbell is a cue for jumping and barking to get fun humans to walk through. They learn that a human sitting at the table is a cue for pawing that human to get attention or a piece of food. They can also learn that proximity to another dog is a cue to move away to avoid the potential of a negative past consequence (maybe a dog growled or jumped on it, or the dog was yanked on its collar by its owner).

They can also learn that your word ‘sit’ or your hand signal is a cue for sitting to get great things to happen. Or any number of cues we teach them through training. Here is the tricky part…our pets are ALWAYS watching us. And they REALLY pay attention to our body language. That being said, they can easily pick up on our slight movement that we don’t even realize we are doing as another cue for a behavior such as, we may lean as we say a word or we may look in a direction. This is actually referred to as ‘double cuing’ and it is SO easy to do. The problem is that, when two cues are taught simultaneously, one has greater strength and one of those cues will likely not be an effective communication too.

Teaching one cue at a time is the most effective, however, you can still have different cues for the same behavior. They should just be taught separately for greatest understanding and retention by the learner. Transfering that meaning from one cue to another is not that difficult. I’ll explain below.

First, here is a recap of qualities of effective cues (in positive training):

  1. They are simple, unique and consistent.
  2. You should say the cue only once.
  3. Only behaviors that are cued will receive reinforcement (from you)

Transferring Cues

How do you create new cues for the same behavior?

Firstly, come up with a second cue that is easily decipherable from the original cue (and different from cues for other learned behaviors). As an example, if you have taught your dog to hand target with a cue of an extended hand and open palm, then you would not want to teach an open palm as a cue for standing as well.

Once you have decided on your new cue, here are the basic steps for teaching it.

  1. Give the new cue.
  2. Then give the old cue.
  3. Then, when your dog does the behavior, mark it and reinforce it as you have in the past.

Do this for two or three sessions of ten to twenty reps each. Then, begin to pause for a moment in between the new and old cue. Your dog will likely do the behavior as it learns (from past experience) that the new cue predicts the new cue. If it does the behavior, immediately mark and reinforce it.  Soon you will be using the new cue only.

Note that if your dog does not do the behavior when only given the new cue, this is feedback that you need more positive practice in building that association between the new and old cues (and the reinforcement).

You will need to “proof” the new cue for all relevant aspects of fluency:  distraction, distance, duration, fluency, speed, precision, and the ultimate goal – stimulus control.  The good news is that if your original cue was well-proofed to fluency, the process of proofing the new cue will be significantly faster the second time around.

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