When the Cue Doesn’t WorkPosted in: Clicker Training
There have been some very interesting discussions on some of the online groups I am on recently regarding cues. Cues are so important within our training as positive trainers; they are the glue which sticks everything together! However, understanding their significance, their importance, how to create them, change them, be aware of exactly what cues we are actually creating through our body language and therefore exactly what the cue is which the animal is responding to, can all get a little complex.
Karen Pryor discusses much about cues in her book “Reaching the Animal Mind”. The following is an excerpt from her book in a section called “When the Cue Doesn’t Work”, which, given the recent conversations, I thought might be helpful to some of you:
“There’s an odd fear that happens during clicker training, especially if you have a traditional-training background: a fear that affects the teacher, not the taught. Its a feeling of disaster when a cue doesn’t work.
The cue is not a command. It permits the behaviour to happen; it doesn’t make the behaviour happen. People often have a hard time accepting that. With commands, the traditional trainer has a back up plan. If your command doesn’t get results, you can make the animal do the behaviour with the leash or the spur or the cattle prod or the elephant hook or simply by displaying your own dominant personality.
Experienced trainers who are starting clicker training bring that traditional baggage along. They may gladly learn to click, and to shape behaviour, and to use targets and to teach new cues. That’s all fun. But they still equate the cue with a command. Sooner or later they give a cue that the animal should have down pat, and this time the learner doesn’t do the behaviour. The trainer panics: now what do I do?
You used to have a good way to fix this problem: use force. Now you’re not supposed to do that, and you don’t see a way out. Damn! Actually, this is an extinction experience; something you used to rely on now doesn’t work. The natural and understandable tendency is a) to get angry, b) to blame the animal, and c) to fall back on the old system of physical “correction.”
Dolphin trainers know that if you give a cue and you get no response, it’s not the animals problem, it’s yours. We’ve also learned that it really doesn’t matter why the animal didn’t respond; there are a jillion possible reasons, but you don’t have to worry about that, because you can fix most cue failures by briefly repeating the training of the cue the way you established it at the beginning. At Sea Life Park I even gave the process a name: going back to kindergarten.
Knowing the causes of cueing problems, however, might help you avoid them in the future, and thus avoid having to suffer an unpleasant extinction-induced anger experience. Here are the main reasons why an animal (or child or friend or employee) doesn’t respond to a cue you think it should know:
- It doesn’t really know how to do the behaviour
- You haven’t really trained the cue yet
- The animal doesn’t recognize the cue because there’s something different about it (for example, you signalled with your left hand when you usually use your right)
- The animal thinks something else is the cue. (A friend going to an obedience trial was especially happy about her dog’s rock solid recall: sit the dog, turn, leave him, turn back, and call “come” – and he came at a gallop every time. What she didn’t know was that when she called, she tossed her head a little and that flipped her long blond ponytail sideways. For the actual competition, she put on her good clothes and did her hair up on top of her head. No ponytail. No recall. No passing score. The dog thought the ponytail flick was the cue.)
- The animal doesn’t perceive the cue at all (a hellish problem back at Sea Life Park, where, in the early days, the underwater speakers often conked out, but we didn’t know that.)
- You have trained the cue in one environment and now you are in another, and you didn’t prepare the animal for that possibility (from the beginning, all behaviors and cues should be taught in changing circumstances, so the cues become one thing that doesn’t change from place to place)
- You are messing up your cue by adding extras. You tell your dog “down”. That didn’t work, so you repeat it, say it louder, bend over, put your hand on the floor, etc. None of this makes the cue more meaningful; the engineering term for all these efforts is noise. Finally, however, the dog takes a stab at the behavior. That reinforces your activities. Now each time you ask for a “down” and you don’t get it, you add stuff to the cue again, trying to “make” the dog do the behavior. The dog is no longer sure which addition is the important one, so his response becomes erratic. Meanwhile the “down” cue is messy, loaded with junk. The cure? Get a friend or a video camera to show you just how much unnecessary behavior you yourself are doing. Go back to the clean, simple, original cue, and reinforce responses to that and only that. The dog will bound in circles with joy and relief.
- The least likely (but most often chosen) reason: there really is something wrong with the animal, and it’s not that he’s stubborn, or stupid, or trying to make you look bad. The dog won’t pick up the dumbbell because he has a sore in his mouth. He can’t sit quickly because his hips hurt. Get him checked out.
All of these trainer errors are “beginner” problems, leading to punishment, and causing unnecessary fear and stress in the animal and trainer alike. With a little more experience you will routinely build clean cues and use them to mean the same thing at all places and all times, so these problems won’t arise. You can still modify your cues, dwindling a hand signal down to the move of one finger, or transferring a gesture to a word. You can broaden them, so it no longer matters which hand you use. You just have to do it knowingly. The end result is that everyone understands the system. The person and the animal develop a rich mutual vocabulary that they can both trust.”
For more information on Reaching the Animal Mind – http://reachingtheanimalmind.com/