Training Cues Not Working?

The Poisoned Cue

Some trainers claim to be positive because they use treats to reinforce good attempts at behaviour, but then they follow up a correction (punishment) in an attempt to curb poor attempts at behaviour. 

Have you ever noticed that your dog does what you ask really well most of the time, but every now and then he just looks at you like he’s never heard that word before? Or instead of the desired response, does your dog sometimes get all excited and grab a toy, jump up on you, maybe even bark at you or start running around the room like a crazy puppy instead of the “Sit” that you asked for? You could have a poisoned cue!

What is a Poisoned Cue?

A poisoned cue occurs when a dog develops an unpleasant association with his cue. Because of these unpleasant associations, the dog will either hesitate to perform the behavior, not do it at all or do something else instead. Any behaviour that has a poisoned cue quickly becomes unreliable.

Without realizing it, dog owners often end up poisoning the cues for the behaviour they are working hard to teach. They may be quite successful during class because they have a skilled trainer who makes sure that the process works well, but at some point when class is over, some negative associations begin to creep into the experience for the dog.

Any unpleasant, uncomfortable or painful thing that happens in conjunction with a request to perform a cued behaviour can create an immediate negative association for our dogs. What we might think of as unpleasant or even painful may be very different than what our dogs think of as unpleasant or painful. Every individual is different and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to truly understand how another individual perceives things. 

A slight tug on the leash, pulling on our dog’s collar, leaning over our dog, or even a pat on the head can all be unpleasant for a dog.

In many cases a poisoned cue comes from a simple misunderstanding between you and your dog or you not reading your dog’s body language accurately. We think that hugs, pets and cuddles should be rewarding because it’s a display of affection for us, but not all dogs like being touched or find touch and affection rewarding in the context of training. If you use a pat on the head as reinforcement or even follow a food reinforcement with a pet on the head, you could be putting good training at risk.

Some Clues That Indicate a Poisoned Cue:

  1. A previously well-trained behaviour starts to become less reliable.
  2. Your dog starts does something completely the opposite of what you asked – jumping up on you vs. sitting.
  3. Your dog shows strong avoidance behaviours – ducking his head when you reach to pet him, stopping just out of reach during a Recall, turning his head or sniffing the ground instead of paying attention.
  4. You start getting slow or reluctant responses to your requests.

Poisoned cues are actually very common. I see the result of them all the time when I work privately with dogs. I’ve seen them in my own dogs too because it’s not possible to predict how each individual dog is going to respond in every circumstances – and mistakes happen.

What’s important is to recognize that somewhere along the way there has been a misunderstanding. Your dog is not being stubborn or stupid, he is simply no longer comfortable doing what you’re asking for some very good reasons to him.

Let’s break down the training process a bit and see how poisoning or negative associations can creep into training and how you can work to prevent them.

1.  Know exactly what you are trying to teach.

If you don’t have a very clear picture of the behaviour you want to teach, training can very quickly become confusing to your dog. It won’t matter how wonderful your treats are, if you can’t give clear feedback during the training, your dog will very quickly lose any motivation to continue working. Frustration will poison this experience for him right from the start.

2.  Keep training criteria as simple as you can.

You may want to teach your dog to get you a beer from the fridge, but this is a very complex behaviour with many different parts that need to be broken down skillfully.

Focus on teaching your dog a behaviour that you have the skill to teach. If you aren’t sure how to teach something then your dog can’t get any quick success, and he will become frustrated and unmotivated.

If you want to teach your dog more complex things then take some training without your dog and work on building your own skills. There are some great resources – videos, books, the Internet and experienced trainers – that can help you learn to break down behaviours and teach things to your dog in simple steps.

3.  Understand what motivates your dog.

Usually the things we want to teach our dog are for our purposes – your dog doesn’t necessarily feel any great need to learn them. It’s our job to motivate our dog

to be interested in working with us and learning the things we want them to do.

You need to know what motivates your particular dog and what reinforcement will make sense to him. Food treats, really good ones, more often than not will work with most dogs.

Food works well because it’s easy to carry, easy to deliver and you can do a lot of repetitions in a very short time to move training along quickly. You can certainly train with play or praise, but is it more motivating to your dog than medium rare roast beef ? How many repetitions can you get into 5 minutes of training if you’re tossing a ball and waiting for your dog to come back with it for another repetition?

If the reinforcement you choose isn’t ultimately something your dog is motivated by, then he won’t be terribly interested in learning anything well. If there is too much time passing between each repetition of the behaviour and the reinforcement, training will progress slowly, which can be frustrating.

4.  Consider the environment.

I always start teaching a new behaviour in a really easy environment for my dog, like my living room or my back yard. I don’t need other factors interfering with a clear and simple process.

Motivation can easily be squashed if you choose the wrong environment. If I’m trying to teach my dog to Sit, for example, I’m going to choose a spot that’s warm and has a non-skid surface. My dog gets cold easily so a warm surface for his butt is important, and no dog is going to want to work on Sit when their front feet immediately start to slide forward on a slippery floor.

I also don’t want to choose a really distracting environment. In order for training to proceed quickly, you need to get a lot of success right at the beginning to keep the momentum and the motivation high. If I choose my backyard and there are squirrels frequently popping up, my dog will get easily distracted and my success will be very limited.

Physical discomfort or lack of early and frequent success can very easily create negative associations.

5.  How are you getting the behaviour?

You need a place to start when you begin to train a new behaviour. You need to get your dog to perform something similar to the desired behaviour the first time so that you have something to mark and reinforce. Skilled positive reinforcement trainers use capturing and shaping or sometimes luring to get that first behaviour. Anything that dogs do naturally and frequently can easilybe captured: see him doing it, mark and reinforce – it’s a good place to start.

For more complex behaviours, you can use a cued behaviour your dog does well to teach a more complex behaviour that might be harder to capture. For example, if your dog can lie down on cue, then you can use that as a starting place to teach Roll Over or Play Dead.

However, any time you use physical prompting (pushing your dog’s butt down for a Sit) or punishment (a yank on the leash or a shock from a collar), to get your dog into position, you immediately poison the process. You will never achieve truly “perfect” results and have a dog willing and able to perform the cued behaviour reliably. If it hurts, is startling, is even mildly uncomfortable or forced on the dog, why would they want to continue learning?

6.  Corrections.

Some trainers claim to be positive because they use treats to reinforce good attempts at behaviour, but then they follow up a correction (punishment) in an attempt to curb poor attempts at behaviour. If you ask for a Sit and your dog lies down instead, these trainers will advise inserting a correction in an attempt to communicate: “nope, wrong answer”. This is not proper positive training.

Combining reinforcement with corrections negatively affects motivation. Your dog will not be eager to perform a cued behaviour if the possibility of “getting in trouble” exists.

7.  Practicing and Maintaining Behaviour.

In order to become a truly solid skill, at some point you need to practice in different environments and different circumstances in order to “proof ” it – help your dog learn to do it regardless of what might be going on around him.

Once your dog is pretty good at his new skill, your focus switches to maintaining the behaviour so that it can be relied upon in the future.

You really need to know your dog well and make good choices about where and how you practice your training. Equally important is making good choices about where and when you ask your dog to perform a learned behaviour once you switch to maintenance mode.

You need to be very aware of your own dog’s nature and emotional state. You also need to be aware of making fair and reasonable requests.

I meet many dogs who are uncomfortable being touched by strangers. People often strive to teach dogs to Sit when they meet up with someone on a walk. Having a dog who sits when they meet people is a commonly desired response by dog owners who, rightfully, prefer this behaviour to jumping up and molesting them instead. However, if you have a dog who is afraid of people or not comfortable being touched, a Sit becomes a very difficult behaviour for the dog to perform. He’s trapped! He can’t easily avoid that hand that might come out at any moment and hover over his head!

Asking a dog who is fearful of people to Sit in the presence of someone is not entirely fair and not a good choice on your part. That choice may eventually put the success of your Sit cue at risk. Your Sit cue will very

quickly become poisoned if he perceives its use as putting him in a dangerous situation. If your dog is very sensitive, just one negative association can have long-term effects on your cue and the reliability of the behaviour.

Can you fix a poisoned cue?

Yes you can!

You could try re-training the same behaviour using the same cue and fix whatever you may think has caused the poisoning. Perhaps use a different training method, or simply use better or different reinforcement. There is always the risk, though, that despite your best efforts, the cue will always retain some negative associations and never be truly reliable.

The best course of action is to re-train that same behaviour but use a different cue for it and remove that negative association once and for all. This is actually harder for us to do than you might think when it comes to traditional cue names like “Sit” and “Down”, etc. It’s hard for people to use cues that don’t seem quite as logical to them. But you’ll be glad you did – your cued behaviour can now become truly stellar!

A side note: A Poisoned Cue is certainly not the only reason behaviour breaks down or becomes unreliable, but it is a common one and well worth being aware of when you try and figure out why your dog isn’t as good at things you’ve trained as you think he should be.

Do you think you might have a Poisoned Cue? Ask your dog and see what he has to say – and remember to keep it positive for the best results!