September Ask a Trainer: Want Reliable Behavior? Create Reliable Cues

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By Kiki Yablon, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA

Ever wondered why your dog only seems to recognize his own name half the time, but will come tearing from a different floor of the house any time you rustle a resealable bag?

Both the dog’s name and the crinkle of the treat bag are cues. One you may have taught on purpose—though the dog may not have learned what you thought you were teaching. The other you probably taught by accident—but you did a better job than you know.

A cue is a signal in the environment that tells the animal reinforcement is available for a certain behavior or sequence of behaviors. “Commands” from you can be cues, but all cues are not commands. Reinforcement, while we’re defining things, is anything that, as a consequence of behavior, increases the future probability of that behavior.

A green light is a cue to move your foot to the gas pedal. More precisely, it predicts: “If you step on it now, you will get to safely cross the intersection.” Your dog’s name is a cue to make a whiplash head turn in your direction. More precisely, it predicts: “If you give me your attention, you’ll get something you really want.”

Or does it?

The reliability of your dog’s response to any cue depends on how reliably that cue predicts reinforcement.

About what percentage of the time would you say the crinkle of a treat bag predicts the dog will get a treat?

Now, what percentage of the time does your dog’s name predict a treat, play, access to the outdoors, petting your dog genuinely loves, or other reinforcers?

How often does the sound of the treat bag predict anything other than a treat for the dog?

And how often does your dog’s name predict the end of play, a collar grab, kennel time, a nail trim, a squirt of ear cleaner, or nothing in particular?

These ratios will give you a pretty good picture of the current reliability of your dog’s response to his name, or any other cue-contingency relationship to which you apply the same math. (This math is a crude version of the Matching Law, a principle of behavior science that I’ve mentioned here before.)

So what can you do to increase the chances that your dog will respond to a cue?

It seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? Make sure that your cues predict an if-then scenario that your dog can really look forward to. Jettison weakened (and poisoned) cues and replace them with new signals that are more reliable predictors of reinforcement. You probably won’t want to dump your dog’s name—but be aware of its ratios, and maybe teach another cue, a fond nickname perhaps, that you’ll use when you need a more reliable response.

Even then, though, there are still obstacles to reliability. Let’s take our own behavior of stepping on the gas at the sight of a green light. For experienced drivers, it feels like the most automatic of responses. But there are still times when we choose otherwise.

First, you have to be able to perceive the cue—which you might not if you’re texting (stop texting!), squinting into the sun, or trying to retrieve the Cheez-It you dropped on your crotch.

What’s more, there may be competing cues in the environment—say, an adorable dog on the corner, or a witless pedestrian in the crosswalk.

When you call your dog’s name, and he doesn’t respond, it’s likely because he isn’t sure what it predicts, or there are competing cues in the environment, or both. Hey, Dad’s calling my name over there, which could mean a biscuit, a bath, or nothing at all, but the strong scent of rabbit poop over here is promising the taste of rabbit poop, so . . . no contest. 

Such hurdles can be largely overcome by anticipating and building tolerance for various competing cues into your behaviors. If your dog can respond enthusiastically to his name at home, master it in the yard. If you’ve mastered it in the back yard, work the front porch. Take it on the road, and move it on down the street. Work it far away from rabbit poop, and then work incrementally closer.

During training, don’t bother giving the cue when you won’t be able to make it pay off for the dog. And reinforce most generously when looking at you costs the dog access to something else really great.