A Cue or not a cue?

by | Aug 12, 2019

Cues are part of our conversation with our dog, giving and listening to cues require skills. One of these key skills is being able to sort the cues that are relevant and signify an opportunity for reward, and those that are just Her being a Person who forgets we are training when she scratches her nose. Not relevant at this time.

Stuff that happens around the dog presents information. Some of this information is very relevant and requires attention and response, but some of it is not. Young dogs need to graduate through a process of learning the difference. The difference may also be liquid. Sometimes the information can be dismissed but at other moments it is more than salient.


Building a learning environment where this journey of cue-sifting is made as easy as possible for our learner requires some pre-planning and consideration. Where is this behaviour going? What am I expecting in the future – two years down the road what will I want the dog to respond to?

As we build the behaviour, for instance walking backwards, we arrange the environment so that the dog learns a stable, physically balanced and beneficial action that will be part of the future. No stuttering, no hesitation, no repairs in the future. This usually requires teaching in small, fine slices, with accompanying guidance towards successful repetitions: hundreds of them.

This guidance is likely to be our hands, our treats, perhaps some furniture or a physical object that shapes the behaviour. But when does the guidance stop being supportive and become essential? When does the guidance become the cue, and the behaviour does not happen unless this guidance is in place.

I taught Dot, with a future to freestyle, to complete many of her movements transitioning from target-mat to target-mat. She would complete great turns, forward walking or trotting, backing, lateral work, large circles. All of these moves were cued by the location and pathway of the next mat and not relevant to where I was or what I was doing. The first time she was in the ring she won Novice Freestyle. This was successful because the ring was a wall around three sides and she completed all the moves along the walls!

What she had selected was the WALL not the mats, as the relevant cues.

The dog gets to select what is relevant, the respond to what they have selected, not our well planned intentions.

When I now teach a behaviour I am clear that the only antecedents that remain constant and consistent are those that are part of the future. The wall, if used for guidance, must not be constant. Other barriers that provide the same guidance for a stable behaviour should be incorporated. Guidance must encourage consistent results but be variable so that the guiding elements cannot be mis-selected as relevant by the dog.

A whole catalogue of contributing elements can be mis-selected: where the dog receives the treat, where the treat is stored before collection, the focal point of the hands, the bent elbow, the hand signals, the dog’s name. Even the pattern of behaviours preceding the marked behaviour if this becomes constant it will become part of the antecedents the dog selects as necessary for success. We see this with jump up greeting prior to a sit for treats, the surge ahead prior to a stop and return to the correct position for treats, the “I’ll be with you in a minute ….” before a response to the recall cue.

With thoughtful planning and a good understanding of the relevance of antecedent selection we can teach the dog the skills of sorting the wheat from the chaff, finding the bones of the exercise.

This skill is critical to being able to distinguish between distractions, which are just cues for an alternative reward opportunity, and cues which signify a guarantee of success.

Squirrel is just a cue to chase and fail, but a cue to This Squirrel is always a chase and kill alongside My Person.

Discrimination is a skill, that needs time to learn carefully and requires much practice. This is one of the key trainer skills.


In this video Merrick is practising finding Pot on the cue, going to Pot and standing with front feet in Pot, then orientating to me. The relevant cues are the Pot itself when cued, it is not relevant unless cued. What is consistent is reward. What is not consistent, and therefore not selected as relevant: where we are, the background, the distance from the Pot, the wind, what has just happened before, where I am standing, the type of reward, where the reward is delivered, where it comes from. By ensuring that these elements are not locked into the contingencies, this behaviour travels very well to new places.

I am not putting this behaviour under the stress of novel places, this is around the house and garden. Places where she is secure and familiar with reward delivery, but this is not easy as these places are also loaded with opportunities for other rewards.



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  1. Iris Maxfield

    Away from the house or a hall used for regular training.

    Example, in a field or large garden or a quiet place where they have walked and are happy, but there are birds, butterfly’s interesting smells, maybe traffic sounds in the distance.

    I’ve always thought of this, as taking trained behaviours “on the road” not sure where the term originated but it seems widely used.
    It would be interesting to know of any other terms used.

    • Kay Laurence

      “widely used” has probably engineered more trouble than benefit! The underlying principle was well intended, but as always when it comes down to the application if it is not well understood, misapplication destroy the value.

  2. Iris Maxfield

    Merrick’s fab to watch, so enthusiastic and happy.

    Interesting the cues they pick up on, apart from the sat nav saying “you have reached your destination”

    My Welsh sheepdog Rolo, made me aware that I make tea about 10 minutes before I’m about to leave the house. I hadn’t realised this had become a habit.
    Whether that’s because I’m going out to meet some one that’s arriving, or I’m taking the dogs out with me.
    The cue I realised, was that I drink the tea faster. Amazing, I am NOT a noisy drinker, everything is the same as any other mug of tea I may make, but Rolo gets quite excited and alerts the other dogs, that I’m either leaving or we are all gong in the van for adventure.

  3. Kay Laurence

    I think they pick up on our energy more than anything – think or arriving at a brand new venue for a dog show, even pre-satNav, and the dogs would be up long before actually turning into the venue. Do we breath faster, sit up more, are more alert to our surroundings?

  4. Catherine Hallam

    Kay, has anyone that you know compared a study to your COAS approach to the ‘regular’ hand lure approach to gain a behaviour?

    • Kay Laurence

      In what sense? Efficiency? effectiveness ? ease of use, ease of learning, number of behaviour you can teach?

      That may take a lifetime!

  5. T

    I hope I am on the right track. Never done a course like this however makes you think and thinking is good.

    Whatever environment our dogs’ may be in in any given moment they will pay attention to whatever is most relevant to them. Taste, touch, smell, vision o auditory. For example if you were taking your dog for a sniff walk around the block and the dog was wearing a gentle leader collar which was fitted to tight he may keep pawing at it, instead of enjoying the sniffs.

    • Iris Maxfield

      Hi T
      I think my question would be, why would the dog be wearing anything that wasn’t well fitted?


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