“Pedant” is such an unpleasant word don’t you think? Here’s what the Cambridge Dictionary says:
So why am I discussing language and pedantry in a Dog Training Blog post? Because in some cases, the finer details of language meaning do really matter. Here’s one of my biggest bugbears: when trainers use ‘command’ and ‘cue’ interchangeably. Let me indulge my inner pedant and explain…
What do the words actually mean?
Let’s start with commands as almost everybody is familiar with those. A command is a direct order: do it or else. The ‘or else’ can range from ‘I will physically hurt you’ to ‘I will make you do it again, and again…’ but it is always implied that the consequence of non-compliance will be something the learner would like to avoid.
- ‘Hands up!’ (or I will shoot you!)
- ‘Ring me’ (or I will be disappointed with you)
- ‘Stay’ (or I will man handle you into position)
- ‘Sit’ (or I will push your bum down)
Implications of ‘Commands’
As you can probably see, even if a reward of some kind is given for compliance the fact that each directive has an implicit threat means that hearing any of these phrases is unlikely to please the listener. That is the weakness of commands – the individual only complies to avoid the threat. Successfully avoiding the threat can be pleasurable but it doesn’t make the command itself any more pleasing to hear.
How commands work
If you choose to use ‘commands’ you need to be aware that if your dog ever fails to respond appropriately you MUST follow up on your implied threat. If you don’t, your dog will quickly learn that ‘you don’t mean it’ and will pick and choose when to respond. You’ll notice that they only seem to listen to you when you’re within arms’ reach, or able to back up your threat in some way. That’s the nature of commands – they rely on the threat of punishment to be effective, and if that threat disappears then so does the illusion of control.
Animals (and people) trained/controlled with the threat of punishment will spend their entire time looking for ways to avoid the punishment without complying with the command. You only have to think about the many different ways people will try to avoid getting a speeding ticket – without slowing down; bending and ignoring rules whenever they think they can ‘get away with it’. If this is the game you want to play with your dog, be my guest, but I can tell you now, it’s hard work and you have to be one step ahead at all times!
Cues are signals that let an animal know when to perform a given behaviour for a positive consequence.
- A light going on tells a pigeon when to peck a disk to get grain.
- A buzzer tells a rat when to pull a lever to get a food pellet.
- A doorbell tells a dog when to rush to the door to great visitors.
- “Wave” tells a puppy to wave it’s paw in a cute gesture to receive treats or fuss.
Implications of ‘cues’
Cues trained with positive reinforcement (also written as “R+”), in contrast to commands, hold no threat at all. All a cue does is let an individual know when a known behaviour is likely to result in reinforcement (generally, good stuff). If the individual fails to respond to the cue the worst thing that will happen is…nothing. The reward will not happen. Think of a cue as an invitation; the individual is free to accept or decline the invite, no strings attached.
The secret power of cues
As you can see from the doorbell example, cues are also tied to emotional responses. Behaviours that are trained using R+ are usually very enjoyable (good stuff happens when you do them!) and the cues that tell the individual that ‘now’ is a good time to do ‘X’ to get ‘Y’ are, by association rewarding. THIS is the power of using positive reinforcement training.
Trained correctly: YOUR CUES BECOME REINFORCING. THEY ACT AS REWARDS!!! The net result is a dog who loves it when you ask them to do something – because doing as you’ve suggested invariably leads to ‘good-things-for-dogs’. And, because the cues you use have reinforcement value, you can string them together easily; each cue rewards the one preceding it – just make sure there’s a decent tangible payoff for your dog at the very end.
I hope you can now see why the difference in the language you use to describe or think about your training makes a HUGE difference to your actual training. The language we use shapes our behaviour.
If you think in terms of ‘commands’ you’ll have the unspoken “you must comply” mindset in your unconscious mind. You’ll be more likely to ‘enforce’ compliance, and failures to respond are likely to elicit a negative emotional reaction from you – your dog is being disobedient after all!
If you think in terms of ‘cues’ you’ll be more able to stay calm, laugh off mistakes and failures to respond. You’ll avoid the knee jerk negative reaction because, well, the only outcome is that your dog missed an opportunity to earn reinforcement. His loss, not yours. All you need to do is think about WHY the mistake happened and then do something to help your dog be successful next time. Isn’t that a nicer way to train?
All the best
~ Sarah and the Gang
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