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 …. ???”



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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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