Cue Seeking

by | Sep 6, 2019

Learning is a continually dynamic process and when food is involved this process naturally winds down as the stomach is full or the cupboard is empty. But if both conditions of a good appetite and a full treat box exist then learning is on the agenda.

The dog will undoubtedly be aware of the close proximity of food through the scent in the air. This will begin a process of enquiry, which we can see in their engagement in scenting the source of the food. When this engagement orientates to us, we will respond by collecting and then delivering a treat.

These two processes, our actions, become salient information to the dog. The collection predicts the delivery. Collection can serve as a marker or be preceded by a marker, but it should not be happening at the same time as the marker, otherwise a marker will become irrelevant.

If collection is your marker, you will lay down a foundation that limits behaviours to the dog being in a location where they can see the collection process. This will then exclude behaviours where the dog may be looking elsewhere, at a retrieve item, a jump, the approaching person. An audible marker is the most effective option, either verbal or a clicker.

Delivery usually focuses on the consumption of the reward, the eating of the food. By incorporating different delivery patterns: catching, chasing, we can include an element of play that increases the reward value and arousal, and we can utilise placement, where the food is collected by the dog, to strategically set-up the opening of the next, or repetition, of the behaviour.

  • If the placement restricts movement, the dog is fed in a stationary location, then the next behaviour will begin at that location.
  • If the dog steps away from that location to collect, then the next behaviour begins at that different location.
  • If the dog travels several feet away then the next behaviour begins at some distance.

This gap between the collection and consumption and the begin of the next behaviour allows us to see the effect of the reward to the dog.

  • Are they keen for more or just mildly interested?
  • How do they enquire whether this pleasure is going to happen again?
  • Do they run towards us or wait on the spot.
  • How powerful and attractive is another reward? Does it override other events that are happening?
  • How much energy is in the re-orientation to the food? Has this reduced or increased? A reduction may indicate a full stomach or mental fatigue.

Without allowing this space to be filled by the dog we restrict our view of the dog’s desire to continue. We can effectively mask what is happening and make misassumptions.

Strategic placement opens this window for use to evaluate the process of cue seeking.

Every behaviour is preceded by antecedents and it is the monitoring of these antecedents that give the dog relevant information to the opportunities available:

  • An open hand as an antecedent can indicate tactile contact that results in more rewards.
  • A verbal cue can indicate a known behaviour, a moving object can indicate an interaction.
  • The person walking away can signify an end of the training session or evoke a desire to catch up and not be left behind.

The dog will be learning the relevance of thousands of different antecedents which may occur as single events or collective events. They will select those that in their experience give rise to opportunities for more food.

This process is cue seeking.

When the dog re-engages and become actively cue seeking we respond with the familiar cue. This will act as a reinforcer for cue seeking and open the avenue to reward.

Cue seeking behaviour should always be carefully monitored and changes noted.

Zip learning to sit

Teaching Cue Seeking

Whether beginning with a young puppy, from the age of about 6 weeks, or an older dog the process always begins with establishing that what we wish to function as a reinforcer, is rewarding for the dog at this time.

We are looking for evidence that the food we give is pleasurable, and more food is attracting the learner. Fatigue and stress may reduce this appetite or attraction, or other events in the environment may require the dog’s complete focus that food seeking would interrupt. If the dog is engaged in watching another activity that may be an opportunity or threat, then at that time food is not their reward of choice – continuing to watch is.

The delivery of our first piece of food is our opening assessment of its value. It establishes the opening of the session, it will become our future cue that learning is beginning. We can precede the delivery with a deliberately choreographed interest in what we may have in the box, or what is hiding in our pocket or picking up a treat pouch.

Collection of the first treat should be observed by the dog, we can attract the dog with our own interest in this bounty.

Place this treat at the dog’s feet and return to where you were before the collection, sit back or stand up again.

Some dogs may sniff, roll this around their mouth, chew, gaze off in absorbed pleasure or suck the treat out of the air and swallow in one breath.

If it was good, very good, then their next thought should be ….. More ..?

Again this thought may vary from some serious pondering and slow cog churning or be occurring on the next breath. This re-engagement, this moment of enquiry, will be reinforced by our next response. The answer is “Yes, of course”.

Over the next 10 -15 treats the placement is going to vary. We are setting up a process that has two purposes:

  1. For the dog to learn how to re-enquire from different places and conditions: lifting their head up, turning towards up, taking a step towards us, coming around to the front of us etc.
  2. For us to be able to evaluate their energy levels and desire to continue.

This is the beginning of cue seeking. Without cue seeking learning will not be optimum and can be coercive even with the use of food.
The learning will be most effective when the dog actively engages, they will be able to retain the information, be more observant of fine details and acquire new skills and neural pathways.

This is known as active learning state.



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Key Reading

The Experienced Dog

Knowing your dog has receive sufficient preparation does not mean every eventuality, but a range of different conditions so that when the unexpected happens they will draw on their skills and solve the issue.

The Value of Experience

The non-experienced, or current generation of imposters, have attended a course, read a book, got a certificate and have yet to gain experience to deepen their knowledge or understanding of the subject, protocol, method …

Chasm opening up?

The more I see “sit, down, come, stay heel” as the essential basics the more I am moving further away from the general view of living with dogs.

Normal is always changing

What was normal in training 20 or 40 years ago is not the same today. There are folk persistently maintaining the normal of 1976, but fortunately there are enough folk with a deeper understanding of the processes that have moved normal forwards.

Shaping by rewards

When I see a dog showing a behaviour that is heading towards potential conflict, my first question is “what rewards are available?”

What is a Trainer?

I know what I am, as a trainer. But does my view of “A Trainer” coincide with, or even overlap with yours?

A Cue or not a 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.

When we train a dog it grows

Most training starts from necessity. Management is a necessity but it usually benefits all parties by a reduction of conflict. Are they expanding their skills to benefit us or for their benefit?

Heartbeat of living with dogs

I like to regard a “teacher of dogs” as someone who meets dogs in their world and teaches them how to be their best whilst living alongside us in our world.

The choice of lure

Luring teaches trainers essential skills. We learn how to use suggestion and guidance to shape behaviours. We learn how to explain dynamic movement in the cues from our hands. In combination with reinforcement, luring has without doubt, been one of the skills I value most as a trainer.

Top Training

One dog watching

The other dog working
or ….how to train the spectators to quietly rest and watch whilst you work, play, teach a single member of the group

The Power of Passive Learning

Active learning: the learner takes active choice of what to do, how to respond, is attentive and making conscious effort
Passive learning: little conscious effort, reward is delivered for minimum effort.

A Day of Learning

A no-training day does not mean he gets a lazy day lying idly in the sun. Learning is still happening and this is significant and important for his development.

Surprising Puppy

Surprising Puppy. With obnoxious moments. After introducing the obnoxious puppy as a youngster I am knocked over by the Delightful Young Man he is turning into……

Obnoxious Puppy

The delight of your new puppy is probably going to last a few weeks, maybe four if you are lucky. When 12 weeks old hits, and you will feel a slam, the Delight is going to demonstrate ungrateful, obnoxious traits.


Preparing before you train and the final check list

More than words

We expect our dogs to understand the meaning of words and signals, but if you have ever worked with computers you will know that what you say doesn’t always turn into an actionable response.

Not all lures contain food

“the direct use of the reinforcer to elicit the behaviour”
This should always be foremost in our mind, in that many alternatives lures are available.

Remote lures

Lures at a distance, separated from hands, pockets . Using reward stations, patterns, containers

Luring: Hand lures

Learning hand-lure skills, Collect the food, engage, follow, feed.

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