Replacing a Poisoned Cue

Eileen reaching down and shoving her hand in the face of a stuffed dog, as if to tell it to stay


Today I’m sharing a hard-won victory and an improvement in my dog’s quality of life.

Summer is my crossover dog, and unfortunately carries some baggage from that. We took three levels of obedience courses at a traditional dog club. Although I had searched for positive training after reading about it on the Internet, after around looking locally I figured maybe it didn’t really exist in the real world. (Sad, I know.) I did not partake of the harsher methods at the club, but as most of us know, even the less physical practices are so different that many many things are going to be hard on most dogs.

Summer is quite sensitive to pressure on her personal space. (Even Zani knows this. She regularly gets Summer to move away from a desired spot just by lying down right next to her.) So when I taught Summer to stay by issuing a stern STAY “command” and rushing my open palm to within an inch or two of her muzzle, it was unpleasant for her. In addition, the stay exercise itself was probably scary. She was a 10-month-old stray and our bond was still tenuous. Hearing all the other trainers raising their voices at their dogs, and particularly my leaving her and walking away while she was surrounded by this activity, were also hard on her.

Here is a short YouTube video that shows an AKC competition group sit stay. Watching it will explain Summer’s stress better than I ever could in words. Imagine if this environment was your dogs’ introduction to the stay behavior! And all the problems are exacerbated if your dog is small, since she can literally be in danger.

For years I tried half measures to rehabilitate our “stay” cue. I tried to counter condition the verbal cue with pairing with treats. I quieted my voice practically to a whisper. I softened the hand signal until it was barely a twitch. But I still got reactions to these two things, and also she consistently showed stress when I turned my shoulder away and started to walk away. I tried to counter condition that too, but the cues kept bringing the stress back.

Pretty clearly this was a poisoned cue. In positive reinforcement training, a cue is a signal that reinforcement is available for a certain behavior. A poisoned cue is one that has been taught with a mixture of reinforcement and an aversive, either deliberately or accidentally. The term was coined by Karen Pryor. So even though I used treats to reinforce Summer’s stays, both the verbal cue and the hand signal were poisoned not only by their intrinsic unpleasantness but by their association with what was initially a frightening experience for Summer. The cues came to mean, “Brace yourself because bad stuff is happening, and by the way you get a treat at the end if you make it that far.” I have written about my own personal experience with a poisoned cue here.

In addition I think Summer’s physical reaction, which usually included an abrupt drop of her head, was not only born of stress but had become a superstitious behavior as well. A tough combination to try to fix.

I finally got it, with some discussion and encouragement from my teacher, that I would have to re-teach the behavior with a new cue. Changing cues is one of my unfavorite things. Who wants to change their habits? But that is exactly what we are asking our dogs to do every time we train them. After watching Kathy Sdao’s wonderful “Improve Your i-Cue” DVD, I realized just how unfair I was being by not wanting to change my own behavior. Cues are comparatively easy for humans. We have language, and we usually choose a word that pertains to the behavior (although we don’t have to). For dogs, learning verbal cues is an exercise in pure memory, using a sense (hearing) that they don’t lead with. They take in information more readily with sight and smell. So Kathy convinced me that that was pretty selfish not to want to change my habit.

With the help of the Training Levels Yahoo group, I picked a new cue: “Hang out.” I wanted something that had relaxed connotations for me so I could always to say it very pleasantly.

A sable colored dog sitting by herself in a kitchen. Her body language is relaxed, her eyes are soft, and she is looking toward someone off camera.

Summer hanging out


When retraining, I couldn’t use the “New cue/old cue” technique of teaching a new cue since any association with the old cue would undo my work. I had to start from scratch. I had to change or rehabilitate three things: the hand signal (I dropped it completely), the verbal cue, and the motion of my turning away from her. Since Summer understands the concept of Stay and has a very nice one, with distance, duration, and distractions, I wouldn’t need to retrain the advanced stuff extensively. I just had to build good associations with the cue itself and my initial leaving.

I started with an exercise in classical conditioning. Since Summer will automatically stay put when I ask her to sit or down, I would do so, then repeat the cue/treat/cue/treat over and over. I did this for several sessions and a few hundred reps. I wanted the cue itself to have good associations. This wasn’t pure classical conditioning since I did have the one contingency on her behavior: that she sit still. But realistically, what dog is going to move away when you are shoveling treats at them like I was? We could just as well consider that we practiced hundreds of mini-stays.  Whatever you call this, we did a lot of it.

Then I practiced turning my shoulder away, again repeating the movement and treating over and over, then taking a step. If I got a stress reaction I would go back to the beginning with tiny movements. Only after I had done these things for many sessions over several days did I start re-teaching Stay in the usual way including adding the new cue.

We had a huge history to overcome. Her old reaction was such an entrenched behavior that pieces of it still creep in, even when “Hanging out.” I will continue to do conditioning on the verbal cue and especially the turning away, which seems to be the strongest trigger. This was a particularly difficult situation to rehabilitate, since there were so many longstanding triggers for her stress.

Changing a cue, even a poisoned one, is not always this extensive a project. I also had to replace her “Leave it” cue and that was much easier. I just stopped saying those words, trained the behavior per the Training Levels, and started attaching our new cue to that. The whole experience was so dissimilar to what we had done in obedience class (“you better believe it!” says Summer) that her old stress didn’t get triggered. I offer that as a ray of hope to the folks who watch the video and think, “Hundreds of repetitions? OMG!”

The video compares Summer’s “stay” behavior from some older clips from 2009, complete with stress reactions, and her new “hang out” behavior in 2012. The people who Like the eileenanddogs FaceBook page have already seen an informal video of these before and after behaviors. This version is fleshed out with more explanation, some body language analysis, and in the second half of the video I show a little 0f what we did for training.

By the way, I trained Zani and Clara without using an explicit cue for stay. Sit, down, and stand all mean to keep in that position until released. But I like having it both ways. Having a word that means stay that you can use in all sorts of situations is handy. Since I trained Summer with such a cue initially, I think we are both more comfortable using one. And one of these days I’ll teach Zani and Clara to “hang out” as well.

Anyone else have to replace a poisoned cue or have to rehabilitate certain aspects of a behavior?

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About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. Eileen Anderson on Google+
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12 Responses to Replacing a Poisoned Cue

  1. Great video. Helpful details. I don’t see the whale eye though. Is this really something people saw from such a distance on a small video on a computer screen? I once had someone tell me Barnum had whale eye when I know he didn’t — he had a haircut, and because of Bouvie faces normally being covered with fur, if you just went by seeing any whites of his eyes, you’d always think he had whale eye when his hair was short unless he was asleep.

    • Hi Sharon and thanks for your comments. You’re right that the second “whale eye” is not obvious, and I may have exaggerated by calling it that but my best guess it that it was for real. It showed up in slow motion, and is in keeping with the rest of her body language. She is doing high speed glancing around. In thinking about it, whale eye happens when the muzzle is pointing one way and the eyes are going a different way, i.e., it goes along with an averted face. I too have known dogs where you can see the whites of their eyes a lot. This still looks a bit different to me. I didn’t try to describe the ear set, but it is also stressed for her. This whole thing was devilish to describe because the main behavior, that kind of violent head drop she does, is not on anybody’s list of stress signals and is, well, idiosyncratic. But in observing her over the years I know that she is deeply stressed when she does that.

      • OK, this makes sense to me: “Whale eye happens when the muzzle is pointing one way and the eyes are going a different way, i.e., it goes along with an averted face.” I just trimmed Barnum’s eyebrows tonight, and if I’m sitting next to him and he’s in profile, there’s plenty of white in the corner of his eye. Even when his eyes are soft. I guess I’m still feeling defensive about that because someone said it on a list (we are both on) and I was very upset that they thought he was that upset during training and that I hadn’t realized. I went back and rewatched it and disagreed with their assessment. I have learned a lot from you and others about reading dog body language, and one thing I’ve learned — particularly from your blog — is how you have to INTERPRET it in the context of the whole dog. Like, the head drop for Summer. I HAVE seen Barnum with whale eye — mostly when he was a puppy and over-excited or when someone was overwhelming him with what they thought was affection (and what he thought was scary) — and it looked quite different (and dramatic).
        By the way, I love the cue, “Hang out”! That is an awesome choice.

        • That feels good to have helped a little. Thank you for telling me. I just did an image search for dogs with whale eye and I think what I said is fairly true. (That was a new observation for me.) If the dog is facing straight on, the eyes are looking to the side. Or it is looking straight at the camera but head is averted. Clara has this all around whale eye she does when she is highly aroused, like when we tug. I’ll have to get a picture of it sometime; it’s pretty scary looking. Anyway I’ve read–either Jean Donaldson or Patricia McConnell–that the thing to look for regarding stress is clusters of signals. I have found that to be a good guideline. And gosh, do I have some soft dogs! Zani licks her lips probably 50% of the time when I give her a cue during the day (not in training sessions). Clara’s front paw starts going up when she is the least bit concerned about what we are doing. That must have hurt when someone misinterpreted Barnum’s eyes and said that.

  2. Helen Gruenhut says:

    Okay, I did not teach commands like sit, stand, lie down, as keep that behavior til another command.
    I would like to have behavior to keep present position until the next cue or release. Would I have to change my cue to each behavior???
    Tia,, Helen
    Your dogs are adorable.

    • Hi Helen! Thanks for complimenting my dogs. I think they are adorable too. My theoretical answer to your question would be Yes. If you taught those behaviors with a stay cue, then stopping using that cue and changing the meaning to stay automatically is technically changing the meaning of the position cue. However, I’m not a professional, and you’d really benefit from the advice of someone with experience training a lot of dogs. You might want to join the ClickerSolutions Yahoo group or one of the positive or clicker training FaceBook groups and ask there. If you need a link to any of these places, let me know. That’s a really good question you are asking.

  3. lorac says:


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