Updated: Nov 7
Dogs trained using positive reinforcement methods have learned that cues are linked to wonderful rewards. A cue can be many things. For guide dogs seeing a curb is a cue to stop. Most of us use words, gestures, or body language as cues. Dogs learn to see cues as happy opportunities for something they will like. But what if you give a cue – and something unpleasant happens instead? Will the dog ever feel the same joy in hearing that cue? The answer is “no”, even if it only happens once.
In training terminology, the cue is now poisoned. In layman’s terms, it is damaged. Here’s an example: To teach a cue, the cue is given just before a behavior happens. If I say “burner” and then mark and reinforce you fifty times for touching the burner that’s wonderful. But what if I say “burner” and just one time the burner is hot?? What if I say I’m sorry and that it will never happen again? Will you ever touch the burner with the same enthusiasm and confidence?
What if you make this mistake and then offer your dog a chew toy to make it up to him? Guess what, you just linked the chew toy to the bad experience. None of this is a decision on the dog’s part; it is how his brain is wired.
Now to a practical application. What if you call your pup nicely – “Sparky, come (said sweetly), and Sparky doesn’t come. What if you now say – “Sparky, I said COME!” He might come to you once out of shock but I doubt he will the next time, and if he does, part of him will worry about which version of you to expect when he gets there.
Let’s talk about how this might have gone differently. Lots of dogs don’t come when called, for an abundance of reasons beyond the scope of this post. My personal rule is don’t call the dog unless you know he will come. That usually has to do with antecedents, said more simply, what is going on around the dog just before you call him. Set yourself up for success by being aware of this. Go closer to the dog, make some happy noise just before you call the dog, call the dog and then take a step in the other direction. There are lots of little tricks to this. One of my favorite recall training tools is to call the dog enthusiastically when he is already on his way to me – that is surefire success. It builds a happy automatic response to the opportunity to come when called.
What if you blow it and get angry with the dog after you give the cue to come? Change the cue. You can attach a new cue to a known behavior and start again. Don’t do that in the same space of time that the negative association with your old cue happened because you don’t want the two to be associated, but you can wait a bit, then fix your problem and go forward.
Dog Training can feel like a vast and overwhelming subject. If you break it down into little scientific pieces it can become an exciting and fascinating journey indeed.