What Happens Between Your Cue And Your Reward?

 As an instructor I see common mistakes that many students make. Important concepts that can be applied to all aspects of training. Regardless of the sport, level, or dog's experience. These are concepts we need to remember every time we train for the length of the dog's training career. This is the first in a series of blogs I'll put out reviewing some of these concepts.

What Happens In Between

When training we use cues. They tell the dog which behavior we want them to perform. As the dog's training progresses, the cue can indicate more than one behavior. Or the cue indicates the start of an exercise and then we use additional cues for more behaviors. All BEFORE we mark and reinforce. There is space between a cue and the marker (a marker that means "that's correct, you're getting your reinforcer right now").

Cue - - -Mark, Reinforce

It's incredibly important to pay attention to EVERYTHING that happens between your cue(s) and that marker. Because in essence you are telling the dog that ALL of it is correct. Let's look at some examples. If I tell the dog to "sit", that's the initial cue. If the dog doesn't sit, I say "sit" two more times and then the dog sits, and I mark, I taught the dog to sit on the third cue. "Duh!" most people will say. Ok, bear with me.

Cue – "Sit" – "Sit" – "Sit" – Dog Sits – Mark

Here is one I see ALL the time. We cue our dog to heel. We start heeling, the dog gets distracted and looks away. Handler uses some form of assistance to get the dog to look back. They make a noise, remind the dog to look at their face, tell the dog to "leave it", etc. The dog looks back and they continue heeling. Then the handler marks and reinforces. What have they taught the dog? Let's take a look:

Cue – Heeling - Dog looks Away – Handler Helps Dog – Dog Looks Back – Continue Heeling – Mark

Did the handler teach the dog NOT to look away in the first place? No. Did the handler teach the dog that it's ok to look away? Yes. Why? Because as far as the dog is concerned, it's part of the chain. No different than any other obedience chain. Let's look at the Drop On Recall. The handler cues the dog to wait, leaves the dog, calls the dog, tells the dog to drop, calls to front and finish. That's a long chain. We reinforce chains like this all the time. And we mark and reward when the dog does it correctly.

Cue: Wait – Call Dog – Dog Comes – Cue Drop – Dog Drops – Call to Front – Finish - Mark

And that's great. As long as other things don't get tossed in there. Such as:

Cue: Wait – Call Dog – Dog Comes – Cue Drop – Dog Doesn't Drop – Give a Second Cue (usually both verbal and signal)– Dog Drops – Call to Front- Finish – Mark

In each case you reinforced the chain. I'm guessing you would be happier with the first chain. But how does the dog know? There is nothing telling the dog that they should drop on the FIRST cue. According to the information you gave, everything the dog did was correct.

There are endless examples. A team is heeling, dog forges, handler moves backwards, dog regains position, continue heeling, mark and reinforce. Did the dog learn not to forge in the first place? No. Handler leaves the dog for a distance exercise, turns to face the dog, dog is looking away, handler reminds the dog to pay attention, dog looks back, handler continues with the exercise, mark and reinforce. Did the dog learn not to look away? Did the dog learn to pay attention when the handler turns around? No. Dog completes an exercise, but "front" is crooked. Handler cues dog to "fix" the front. Dog adjusts so front is straight. Handler cues a finish, dog finishes, mark and reinforce. Did the dog learn that "front" must be correct on the first try? No.

What about inconsistent information?

What about inconsistent information? Let's go back to our Drop On Recall. You want the dog to respond promptly to your cue and drop immediately. In training your dog responds nicely. Great. You then go to a show n go, or training session with friends. Maybe you are doing a partial or full run through. You get to the DOR, your dog does not respond immediately to your cue.

The dog travels, then finally goes down. You ask for a front and finish. Then Mark. Or you continue to another exercise, then Mark. Either way, you told the dog the slow response to your cue is correct. As far as the dog is concerned, traveling is now an acceptable response to your cue. The next time you train the DOR and your dog responds slowly, you are frustrated. Naughty dog. That's not meeting criteria! 

Ummm…yes it is…because you inadvertently told the dog it was correct. Imagine how the dog feels. From the dog's perspective, what's clear and fair is only accepting a prompt, fast drop 100% of the time.

People get very frustrated when, over time, the dog doesn't seem to be learning a concept. But you must ask yourself…does the dog really understand what you want? Have you clearly taught the dog NOT to look away? Or NOT to get out of position? Or NOT to rely on multiple cues? Dogs are only doing what we taught them. If the dog is not exhibiting the behaviors you want, you need to examine your training. Take a look at what happens between your initial cue and your marker. Write it down. Video tape it. Don't just look at one training session. Look at multiples. Are you consistent? Are you clear? What are you actually marking and reinforcing? 

Once you become AWARE of what you are doing, you can fix it! Your dog will be very grateful. And you will have more success when training, which is highly reinforcing for you!

E359: Ashley Escobar - Teaching Conformation Skill...
E358: A Look at FDSA Training Camp!

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