Once your dog begins to offer a behavior regularly, you can put it on cue. A cue is the word you say to tell your dog, “now’s a good time to do that behavior, because it might pay off.” Think of it as a green light for the behavior.
To put a behavior on cue, we need to teach the dog that the word and behavior are connected.
In traditional compulsive training, cues are taught right from the start. The trainer tells the dog what to do (for example, “sit”), and when the dog doesn’t respond the trainer physically places the dog in that position. Over many repetitions, the dog learns to put his rear end on the ground when he hears “sit” to avoid being pushed into that position.
In clicker training, we first teach the dog what we want him to do.
Remember, dogs don’t understand English. They learn what words mean by associating the word with whatever action is most closely paired with it over many repetitions. This means that if your dog is standing in front of you, staring at you, and you keep telling him to “sit,” he’s very likely to think that the word “sit” means “stand in front of my owner and look at them.” Not the association we want them to make!
Before you begin to add the cue, wait until your dog is offering the new behavior reliably enough that you can predict when he’s going to do it. Perhaps you’ve been capturing his bow every morning when he stretches, and now every time he walks up to you he bows in the hope that you’ll click and give him a treat.
When you would bet $50 that the dog is going to bow within the next 2-3 seconds, say your cue. Let’s say that you want to teach your dog to bow when you ask, “who’s your queen?” Say “queen” right before you think the dog is going to bow. When he bows, click and treat. Repeat this 10 times or so. Each time you think he’s about to bow, say “queen,” then click and treat. After 10 bows, stop talking. He’ll probably bow again. Don’t click this one. He may bow more, or try bowing deeper. Wait until he stops bowing. As soon as there’s a pause, say “queen” and click the next bow that happens after this.
At this stage, we’re teaching the dog an improvement on his bowing behavior. He’s learned that sometimes when he bows he’s going to get a snack. Now, we’re explaining a new rule to him. We’re showing him that he will only get a snack for bowing if he does so when he hears the word “queen” first. “Queen” has become a green light for bowing. It tells him, “now would be a good time to try that bowing trick.”
This is how to get behaviors on cue. If you want a non-verbal cue for a behavior, such as a hand signal or body cue, just insert that movement in place of the word in the above example (for instance, you may decide you want to teach your dog to bow when you bow, so the two of you can acknowledge an appreciative audience together). Expect this process to take 40-100 repetitions with most dogs.
In future posts, we’ll talk about other ways to get behavior and some common training pitfalls. In the meantime, please comment below with your training questions, stories, or brags. We look forward to hearing from you!