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The Difference Between a Command and a Cue

Updated: Jan 22, 2023

Yes, I know. Not a Maremma. Not in a field. But this was the best video example I could come up with to illustrate the use of a cue and the willing participation of my dog.

This is Josie, my three-year-old Miniature Schnauzer. I am taking part in a six-month intensive dog training course and Josie is my training partner, in part because she has to travel with me for the course. What is important for my course is the way this cute little trick was taught and I won't bore you with those details. But what I want to show you is body language: Josie's, and mine.

I have taught Josie a behavior called stationing. She is to stand in front of me and look into my eyes. She gets clicked and paid for that. When I have her attention, I can ask for a different behavior with a cue. If she doesn’t give me the behavior, I wait a second or two, ask for a behavior she is solid on and reward her, and then ask for the other behavior again. If she still doesn’t give me the cued behavior, something is off in our training. That is usually me not being clear or asking for too much too soon in a behavior Josie doesn't know well yet.

Notice how softly I ask and how willing Josie is to do the requested behavior. In fact, Josie has become a training junkie and follows me all over the house asking to play games with me!

Now to the blog text:

The dictionary definition of a command is: To direct with authority; give orders to

The dictionary definition of a cue is: A signal, such as a word or action

The primary way for a canine to communicate is through body language, not sound. The way you carry yourself around your dog can seem like shouting to them even if you don’t mean to say a thing.

Think about how your posture changes if you are angry, or scared, or tired, and then think about the incredible subtleties dogs can read. If you are in a “do it or else” mood, your body will show that. In a dog that mindset would be shown in a tight, stiff body with purposeful movement. If you head out to interact with your dog looking for a working partnership, your body will show that through a softer, looser posture.

In traditional training commands are used. This type of training is stressful for dogs because there is a chance they will make a mistake and an unpleasant consequence may follow. Even if you are a kind and fair trainer the stress is there for the dog; nobody likes to be wrong, including dogs.

If you show up in your dog’s otherwise idyllic environment and issue a command, you are likely to encounter resistance and avoidance in your dog. He’s got a lot to lose and not much to gain by participating with you. Dogs in this situation are often viewed as independent, stubborn, or just not very bright when in fact the problem is in the way the owner communicates with the dog. And your dog can read your body language from before you even come into the field; communication is already happening.

A cue is an invitation to earn a reward. That reward may be a treat, but it may also be your praise, your touch, or just your presence near your dog. Dogs do what is immediately rewarding/reinforcing. If doing what you have asked feels good to the dog, he’s likely to respond favorably to your cue.

Cues are part of reward-based training. This type of training focuses on what the dog did right and reinforcing that behavior through giving the dog things he enjoys. By teaching dogs behaviors that we want that are incompatible with behaviors we don’t want it is possible to eliminate “bad” behaviors without ever scolding the dog.

Dogs love this type of training and look forward to the opportunity to play the game with you. Rather than feeling oppositional, a dog trained this way is likely to meet you at the gate and welcome you in!

In Positive Perspectives 2 - Know Your Dog, Train Your Dog, Pat Miller says "Dogs who have been trained with positive methods from puppyhood tend to show more volunteerism; they raptly observe their handlers, looking for opportunities to offer behaviors that may be rewarded."

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