Think carefully

by | Aug 24, 2018

using a cue to train a behaviour

The power of a cue ….

I recently posted this video to FaceBook which harks back to those early, discovery days of clicker training. We cannot presume a cue is a reinforcer unless we can shape a new behaviour using that cue as the marker. This is how it unfolds …..

Merrick is experiencing a demand for finding a solution, and when successful I am using the cue “turn” as the marker. This is not as accurate as a click, but it demonstrates the power of a cue.

Sarah Owings posted this response to the video The Power of  Cue (Aug 2018)


“Do you feel that there is a time and place for trainers to deliberately leave space for dogs to do this kind of problem solving? The current trend is to keep the loops so tight, with micro-reinforcement delivery each step of the way. Although you can get much closer to errorless that way, also seems much less room for thinking.”

It is always a bit spooky when brains are shoved in the same direction by a single event. I only write this yesterday after posting the video:  Construction or suppression?

I don’t think the question is whether the protocol is the right choice or the wrong choice but how the learner behaves. Just as a protocol cannot be good or bad since its success is completely dependent on skill level and motivation – much like cooking. A recipe “fails” because of application or variation in the ingredients.

In my video I see a relationship that is a two-way conversation. It is Merrick working hard to get me to respond. I see she quite enjoys that process, and the frustration of me pretending to be unimpressed causes her to flirt even more.

This is part of her personality.

I am self-limiting in what I will teach a particular dog through only exploring and expanding on behaviours that exist naturally for that dog. She has never shown any sign of crawling across the floor, standing on her front legs and rarely sits. So I do not teach her these behaviours. My collies have never shown the chin-to-floor-butt-up, and is not only a Gordonish behaviour but it is a product of a very, very flexible spine and shoulder angles.

The behaviours I select to build are already in her own repertoire to some degree. The turn-spin you see is one of her favourite expressions of anticipation.

The same limitation can then be applied to whether the dog naturally enjoys the processes, or teaching strategies we use and whether they have the skills and experience for them.

I remember finding it extremely unmotivating to be faced with a blank sheet of paper and instructed to “create something”. Either essays, poems, pictures or doodles.

But one art teacher used to read a paragraph from a book and then gives us the paper. That worked fine for me. I think it is called “reactive blogging” these days. Imagination or response is stimulated by the environment. For the dogs it would be the placing of a new object instead of a paragraph.

That strategy connected with my learning style, it was in my repertoire, at that age.

There is a chronological component to also be considered. A naïve or novice learner that has low self-esteem should never be put in this situation. Would I have done this with her as a puppy? Absolutely not, thinking processes were super hard, which was normal for her stage of development.


The creativity, confidence and her relationship with me, develop with time.

I would like to think, my plan for her education to develop this “thinking capacity” came as a result of the micro-shaping, the protection from errors, the building of her learning experiences.

I like this:

You are not a blank slate, nor a receptacle to be filled.

I am not the font of all knowledge, not the pen that will write the answers across your mind’s sky.

Read carefully, think carefully, consider multiple perspectives.

Weigh the evidence, check the sources, ask questions.

Charlotte Pezaro. 

If a learner has not had the opportunity to learn how to;

~ read carefully

which is usually the skills of reading between the lines, assessing exactly what the question is asking, following the instructions in detail

~ think carefully

develop a process of teasing apart the points, consider how those would affect individuals, preparation required before application

~ consider multiple perspectives

in training the perspective of the animal, their future, the skills they will need for the life for which they will be living

Have they learned how to weigh evidence?

Rarely, it seems if someone has done it on Facebook or YouTube then that constitutes “evidence”. Even an expensively produced TV show is biased to entertain and will mostly skip the educational authenticity completely.

Sources need to be checked. Some of the original interpretations of the early days, were just that, an opinion of one person or one institution. The example “click and treat”, no, it is “click and reinforce”, but that misinformation took a long time to turn around.  “Premacking” has become a common place verb and being ascribed to anything that is not a piece of food.

This is, for me, poor examples of the educational diligence which people are avoiding when it comes to animal training and their own learning. It seems easier to let someone else do the thinking for you and just copy.

If we want to go a step further I would set an exercise – a discussion beginning with Pezaro’s excellent article about Conferences. For every point she makes we have similar issues within the training community and professions.

I feel a FB group coming on: “The Education of …. ???”

Key Reading

What Words Conceal

The language across all kinds of media paints a picture of dogs and our relationships with them.

Location is Their Cue

We begin teaching the dog to go to a target, such as a mat or platform and in this process our focus is on the outcome – the dog can place feet on the object or settle down. But at the same time this learning is happening the dog is also noting the location: where this is happening in this room, in the house, relative to the food-machine (you).

Cue Seeking is Connection

Connection is very individual and to be authentic we have to observe, slow down, understand our dogs and meet them where they are.

The Right Bed in the Right Spot

Resting and sleeping are not necessarily the same state. Good sleep where we feel safe and comfortable is important for us all.

Play Health Check

When we look at play or food delivery as an ACTIVITY we share the same mindset as the dog: is there pleasure to be experienced?

Since the Dawn of Dog Training

The old joke reminds us that the only thing dog trainers can agree on is that their training method in the best one. It becomes increasingly difficult to know which method is “right” and whether it will suit the dog, the situation and trainer’s skills.

Back to Basics?

The word “basic” is often derided as synonymous with “shallow,” but in its origins it is the very opposite: foundational, profound, supportive.

The Whole of The Dog

We cannot divide training into compartments of fast recalls, or sit for greeting, or loose leads as everything we ask of the dogs is interrelated.

Not Today and Not for My Sheepdogs

Standard protocols of extinction, impulse control, counterconditioning are quickly grabbed off the shelf as satisfactory solutions. These solutions are unlikely to help your collie, your sheepdog as the focus is heavily on suppression of who they are and why they live.

Do you see what I see

Doing better is the reward from doing the work. This work needs to be the right work at the right time with the right intent done in the right way.

Top Training

Evidence of learning

When we use the words “teach” or “train” child, person or dog, the operative term implies that the process is under the ownership of the teacher or trainer. What your teacher thinks you have learned may not be what you actually learned.

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


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