When most of us think of cues, we think of the verbal ones we teach our dogs. “Sit,” “Down,” “Here!” Perhaps we have taught them some hand signals as well. To teach a cue we go through a set process that can be quite a bit of work. It involves foresight, planning, and decision making on our parts. And practice, practice, practice. I think that tends to limit our perception of the other ways cues can come to exist in our lives with our dogs.
There are cues going on all the time that we didn’t plan or teach, and some that we don’t even know about.
Let’s review the definition. A cue in learning theory is properly referred to as a discriminative stimulus. Such a mouthful. A discriminative stimulus signals that reinforcement is available for a certain behavior. (The term also applies to a stimulus that indicates that reinforcement is not available, but let’s leave that alone for now.*). Breaking it down a bit: What’s a stimulus? It is a physical event that the organism can sense. Discriminative? It has a special meaning in this definition.
So in plainer English, and in the usage of dog training, a cue is a green light that tells the animal that there is a desirable consequence available if a certain behavior is performed. In real life training, we need to be sure and make it different enough from other stimuli so that the animal knows what behavior is being indicated. You don’t want your “bow” cue to sound like your “down” cue (thanks, Kathy Sdao!), and if you are using colors as cues, you had better not use colors that look almost the same to a dog, like orange and red.
Note that a cue is not a “command” or an “order.” There is no force in the definition of cue.
The Clever Cue Detector
My dog Clara has a genius for observation of the tiniest details, perhaps in part a result of her feral background. Since she arrived in my dog household, I have noticed an increase in group behaviors by my dogs that are responses to events in their environment. In other words, they now notice all sorts of things, usually that I do, that likely predict good stuff. And Clara in particular has the ability to follow my behavior chains backwards, to find the earliest predictor that I might do something cool.
The first one that I noticed is that Clara responds when I reach for the top shelf of a particular cupboard in the morning as I am getting ready for work. Virtually the only time I reach up there is to get down the package of cookies that I typically dip into for the dogs when I get ready to leave. Clara gets a nice treat when she goes to her crate, and the others (who are separated in different parts of the house but not otherwise confined) get a small piece too.
If we put that in the language of behavior analysis, we have:
- Antecedent: Eileen reaches for package of cookies on the top shelf
- Behavior: Clara runs to her crate and waits inside
- Consequence: Clara gets a nice chunk of cookie
The interesting thing to me is how far back in time Clara has tracked this cue. Some dogs might not get in their place until verbally cued to do so. That’s the case with my other two dogs. Or a dog might wait until I was walking towards her crate. Or breaking the cookie into pieces, or rattling the package while getting the cookie out. But Clara has traced my behaviors backwards to the earliest consistent predictor of my leaving and her cookie: my reaching for the package. Also, I think it’s very cool that she runs away from the cookie to get the cookie.
In the movie, I show what happens when I reach into the cupboard and pull out something from a lower shelf. (Nothing! Even though it’s a noisy package, the dogs continue to watch, but don’t budge.) Then I show what happens when I reach for the special package of cookies. The sound is certainly part of the cue, but Clara doesn’t always wait for the sound. I have experimented, and she discriminates on the basis of what shelf I am reaching for.
Here are some more cues that I have come to notice. They are mostly Clara’s, but the other dogs have learned them now as well. I’m skipping past the more obvious ones like how all the dogs come running if they hear me preparing a meal, or open the front door. Everybody’s dogs do that, right?
Cue, Cues, Everywhere!
- Setting: kitchen, in the morning. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: Clara runs to her crate. Why: I’m getting ready to leave for work, and she’ll get a good treat when I crate her. So actually, now that I think about it, she has traced the cookie cue even farther back in time than I realized.
- Setting: kitchen, in the late evening. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: Clara runs to the bedroom. Why: I’m getting ready to go to bed, and she loves getting in the bed. (So in these two, the time of day is a part of the antecedent that allows her to discriminate.)
- Setting: kitchen or office, the rest of the day. Cue: I close the lid on my laptop. Behavior: All dogs jump up or come running from other parts of the house to see what will happen. Why: Whatever I do next will likely be more interesting to them than my working on the computer.
OK, you get that when I actually get off the computer, it’s a real event. And actually, my drawing a breath and reaching for the laptop cover is now becoming the cue.
A different computer cue:
- Setting: office, early evening. Cue: I put my laptop in its cover. Behavior: Clara runs to her crate. Why: I’m likely going out (I carry my laptop around a lot).
The All-Important Ball
As you can imagine, with a ball-crazy dog like Clara, she pays intense attention to any cue that might precede a game.
- Setting: Afternoon in the yard. Cue: I clean up after the dogs and put the poop stuff away. Behavior: Clara runs up the steps eagerly, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
- Setting: Afternoon in the yard. Cue: I finish raking and put the rake away. Behavior: Clara runs up the steps eagerly, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
- Setting: Late afternoon in the house. Cue: I let the dogs out of their various areas after they eat their supper. Behavior: Clara runs to the back door, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
- Setting: Late afternoon in the house. Cue: I walk towards the back door. Behavior: Clara runs ahead of me, looking back over her shoulder to see if I am coming. Why: I might throw the ball.
OK, from the above four, you can see how important playing ball is to Clara! The other dogs usually come too, since there is reinforcement available for them as well.
Kitchen Stuff, Training Sessions, and Attention in General
- Setting: Kitchen. Cue: I lean back in my chair after eating. Behavior: Clara comes running over and nuzzles my hands. Why: I am available to pay attention to her again.
- Setting: Kitchen. Cue: I open the pill bottle for Summer’s thyroid medicine. Behavior: All dogs come running. Why: they all get a little peanut butter when I give Summer her pill. This one is especially interesting because it has been several years since I used to open the bottle for Summer’s pills twice a day. These days I only open it once a week because I cut up the pills and put them in a pill sorter. And I don’t always do that when it’s time to administer the pill. So it is no longer a perfect predictor. No matter; they still all come running. The power of a variable reinforcement schedule.
- Setting: Anywhere in the house. Cue: I pick up the camera tripod. Behavior: All dogs come running. Why: Training session!
- Setting: Anywhere in the house: Cue: I pick up one of the dogs’ mats. Behavior: All dogs come running and try to get on it even while it’s up in the air. Why: Training or mat session!
- Setting: I am talking on the phone. Cue: I start making finishing remarks. My dogs can tell from my inflection that I am winding up the conversation even before I get to “Goodbye.” Dang, they are good! Behavior: All dogs gather around. Why: I will probably get up and do something.
- Setting: Anywhere in house. Cue: A delivery truck comes by. Behavior: Clara and Zani come running. Why: I have classically conditioned Summer’s barking to mean a shower of food, and it has morphed into a recall cue. However, Clara and Zani both learned what makes Summer bark, so they no longer wait for her to bark.
Finally, here’s one starring Zani. Back in 2011, when I was making this movie about negative and positive reinforcement, I trained Zani to run down my back steps on cue. I have not used that cue very much in our life together, since generally she goes down when she needs to and I don’t intervene if she thinks she doesn’t need to. Some of the training for that cue took place during some snow here, a relative rarity. Interestingly, the snow became a cue! See what happens.
There are three types of antecedents: cues, setting factors, and motivating operations. I discussed with some knowledgeable friends what kind of antecedent the snow likely was. Characteristics of the environment are often setting factors. However, the snow by itself is sufficient to get Zani to start running up and down the stairs. So I vote that it is an actual cue.
What are some of your dogs’ more interesting cues? Planned or unplanned?
- BarkBusters: Myths about Barking
- Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
- How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
- Thesholds: The Movie!
- What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?
* Keller and Schoenfeld, Principles of Psychology, 1950, p 118. A stimulus-delta is also a discriminative stimulus.