Thursday, December 12, 2013
Cues and Commands
The term cue has replaced command with a certain group of trainers. Commonly understood, a command is an order, backed with the threat of an unpleasant consequence for disobedience, and hence out of vogue with the force free crowd. They want to distance themselves from the trainers who still – blech – use compulsion to get a dog to do their bidding, and disapprove not just of command, but several other words that were and are used regularly, and I’ll elaborate on sometime in the future.
Without compromise, I am force free. Choke and prong collars are archaic, and shock collars outright inhumane; were they not, they wouldn’t be banned in several countries and people wouldn’t go to prison for using them on a child.
Nevertheless, I use both cue and command, because a cue is much more than a direct instruction we give our dog, but also that.
Animals, including dogs, act based on information they receive from the environment and information retrieved from the brain. A cue connects a situation with the corresponding memory - it is a stimulus that reminds, prompts the animal into a certain action.
Anything can be a cue a dog will respond to: The fleeing rabbit, a piece of garbage on the road, a barking dog, the mailman approaching. In fact, environmental cues can be very potent action triggers, and we need to understand that, at that moment, the dog has no choice but to act. He isn’t behaving badly to piss you off, but because he can’t help it.
Fortunately we humans are a brainy species. We are able to teach our dogs our own cues, you could call commands, and why we should is obvious: Dogs who live in a human social setting have a better quality of life when they follow human social rules.
Successfully done, my dog will discriminate between cues, and defer to the one I give. In other words, my cue overrides whatever out there catches her attention and interest. That’s what we call obedience, and I want it. Every dog owner does.
Dogs are not egalitarian. Absolutely, we have a moral, unfortunately in our lands rarely a legal, obligation to meet their needs, but someone has to call the shots, and with dogs that live with us, it’s us.
We are in control of what our dog wants, we have the vision for the future, we set the course for the relationship, and we need to explain to the dog how his, sometimes complex and changing, world functions and what role he has in ours. Cues do exactly that. They are our communication line to our dog, and regardless if you say cue or command, it should never feel bad.
Alexandra Horowitz, in her book “Inside Of A Dog”, talks about a study that found that when owners used commands during a play activity, the dogs had a higher cortisol level after the session compared to dogs who got to play freely without any demands put on them. I don’t want that. I don’t want that my cues raise my dog’s stress, and yet when I give a command, I expect my dog to heed it.
How can we marry the two?
By rights, it shouldn’t be difficult. Dogs, unlike wolves, are genetically programmed to look to humans for information. Dogs have an evolutionary history with humans that wolves don’t have, and puppies, even when they have closer contact with littermates than people, offer eye contact and follow human gesturing from a very young age on.
Brian Hare and Vanessa Wood, in “Genius of Dogs”, write: “Dogs dependence on our social information makes them more like infants than wolves.”
The problem is that instead of taking advantage of, and building on, dogs’ proclivity to take their cues from humans, many treat a dog in a way that turns our presence, words and gestures into a stress triggers.
Humans can royally mess things up, and as a result we have variations how inclined the individual dog is to seek his human’s cues. Breed can play a role, but also life experiences: Left on their own a lot, dogs understand that stimuli and useful information comes from the environment and that’s where their attention will go, and dogs punished and deliberately presented with stressors, including when micromanaged and never permitted to live out their intrinsic drives, learn to resist and avoid us, and then we have to artificially bribe or demand the attention that should come so naturally.
How do we do things better, so that indeed our cues will override environmental ones, and the dog will listen to us without feeling stressed?
I’ll chat about it in various future posts, but there are three critical aspects:
Don't intimidate, threaten and hurt when you teach a dog what your cues mean.
The clearer a signal is for the dog, the less he will gamble when he has the choice between several options. One cue for one behavior, and make sure your dog knows it and hears you.
And we have to give the cue proactively. Duh! I score little leadership points each time I provide a concrete roadmap that helps my dog solve life’s natural pressures, and the more she trusts, the more she’ll look for cues when in doubt, including when she walks ahead of me off the leash and references back which direction to take at crossing paths. She could just follow the scent cue that’s most enticing, but she doesn’t.
People fail in all areas, but often aren't even aware of the importance to be proactive. They wait until the dog makes a choice and then react, and punish if they don't like the choice.
The information our dogs seek and we provide must come via gestures and words, not the collar or leash. A prong collar is not a steering tool, my voice and body are.
To prevent that cues are relayed through the leash, some trainers recommend hands-free ones, which is great other than running the risk to lose footing when a powerful and not yet well enough trained dog bolts. I acquired a nice scar exactly like that. So, I prefer leash in hand, but teach my clients not to use it to communicate. Chances are that during a dog’s lifetime the owner will be holding a leash in their hand, so they better learn what it is, and isn’t, for.
Of course, the leash in itself many dogs respond to because it is a cue that something is about to happen. Commands are what we deliberately teach, but cues are also something the dog picks up and connects in our day-to-day routines. We are often unaware until we notice a pattern – the dog responding in a certain, habitual way triggered by us doing something customarily.
Sometimes it takes awhile, like Will who halts at always the same spot in our neighborhood to have her leash clipped back on, and sometimes a dog connects the dots very quickly, like our Aussie boarder who settled at my feet each morning when I opened my laptop. I didn’t cue in any other way, and also did not reinforce it.
The above-mentioned behaviors, of course, are great, but dogs also make connections that backfire. One experience, if it impacts the dog badly enough, can trigger a strong aversion response when the cue presents itself again. Although the aversion is typically expressed in behaviors we don't want, a dog can also perform flawlessly if that is the only way he can avoid or stop the bad thing. That is why shock collars work - with some, but that has nothing to do with dogs' natural predisposition to seek help and information from humans.
The only way to foster that is to be mindful of the cues we expose our dogs to: The commands we teach and how we use them, and the cues that are part of their environment.