When the Cue Doesn’t Work

Posted 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:

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.”

Karen Pryor

For more information on Reaching the Animal Mind –