Do you have to repeat your cues before your dog does what you ask? Have you ever wondered if your dog is really understanding what you are asking for, or in a moment of frustration wondering if your dog is just blowing you off?
Dogs aren’t just ignoring your cues for the sake of being difficult. If your dog isn’t doing what you have asked, it’s likely that either the distraction level is too high, the cue hasn’t been clear enough, your dog isn’t sure what you want, or your criteria for the cue was unclear and has become meaningless or “poisoned.”
“Poisoned cues” is a term used to describe a cue that has lost all meaning to your dog. Poisoning a cue can occur if a verbal cue is introduced but not fully reinforced and so the dog simply doesn’t understand what behavior you want.
Poisoned cues can also happen if you teach a behavior but then the cue fails to be reinforced accurately by you or other people in the home and over time the behavior can become sloppy or unclear. If you regularly find yourself repeating a cue before your dog responds, it’s likely your cue is at risk of being poisoned.
A common example of how this can happen is with a dog’s recall. Do you find yourself saying “come! come! Come! COME!!!” with increasing volume and urgency as your dog continues to sniff the grass, and then maybe, eventually comes over to you? Your dog has learned that “come” only means “come” the fourth (or more) times you say it, or the cue has become completely meaningless to your dog, and they likely have no idea what behavior you want.
Poisoned cues can happen accidentally even with experienced trainers. This often happens because:
- You pushed too quickly with training something, and the dog never fully understood what the behavior was
- The desired criteria for the behavior is not clear to the dog (or sometimes even the handler)
The verbal cue can also lose meaning due to overuse and underperformance. The easiest example of this is asking your dog to sit and when your dog doesn’t sit the first time you use the cue you just keep repeating “sit, sit, sit, sit, sit.” If you have to continually repeat a cue, your dog probably doesn’t understand it.
Fixing Poisoned Cues
If you find yourself realizing that one (or more) of your dog’s cues are inconsistently being performed and have likely been “poisoned” there are a couple of options for helping you and your dog to communicate more clearly with each other.
The first option is to go back and retrain the behavior and cue the way you did previously, and the second option is to start over by reteaching the behavior with a completely new cue.
It can sometimes be much easier to start over using a new/different verbal cue. So instead of “come” you could transition your recall to “here.” To do this you’ll want to start over from the very beginning and teach the behavior the way you would if your dog had never learned this skill. As you are reteaching you can slowly introduce your new verbal cue as your dog begins to master the skills, again in the same way that you would if you were teaching the behavior for the first time.
If you know that your cues got poisoned not because of your own training, but because you have family members who used the cues incorrectly, inconsistently, or didn’t give your dog a high enough rate of reinforcement, the best option is to try to get everyone on the same page with training. However, if that’s not possible another option is to retrain the cue but not share that information with your family. For example, you may want to retrain your dog’s recall onto a cue that you use in obedience or other sports instead of the cue your family will continue to use for the vague idea of a recall cue from the yard that your dog (hopefully) eventually responds to. As long as your family doesn’t start using your newly taught and reinforced recall cue you shouldn’t have a problem your dog will continue listening to you and ignoring your family using the old cue.
Preventing Poisoned Cues
The best strategy to protect the integrity of your cues is consistency and high rates of reinforcement. You get paid to go to work, and your dog should be getting regularly paid for working as well! It’s helpful (if possible) to get your family, dog walker, dog sitter, and anyone who regularly spends time with your dog all on the same page about what cues your dog knows and how they should be reinforced with praise, treats, and/or playing with toys. It can be helpful to have a list of common cues posted in a central area of your home like a corkboard or written on a whiteboard.
One of the challenges that people often face is that they will assume their dog understands more than they do about the specifics of a particular cue which can lead to the cue being poisoned. To avoid this, be sure to take your time while training, practice cues regularly, and if your dog starts to miss the cue go back to the last step your dog was successful and work at that level for a while before continuing with the skill. Taking your time as you are teaching new skills to your dog will give your dog a strong foundation and help prevent cues from becoming inconsistent or getting poisoned in the future.