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Poisoned Cues: The Case of the Stubborn Dog

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When I arrived at my client’s house last week, she was very excited to show me how well her dog Missy was doing with hand targeting. “Watch this!” Megan said as she gathered her clicker and treats. Missy was at full attention in front of her. Megan gave the cue, “touch,” and presented her hand. Missy took one look at her hand, ducked her head, and sat down to scratch. Megan tried again. Missy began sniffing the ground. Megan’s face dropped. “We’ve been practicing all week for you. Missy knows how to touch. Why is she being so stubborn?”

Petting dog

Was Missy being stubborn?

She had been excited to participate in the training up until the moment she heard the cue. She was fully focused on Megan and anxiously awaiting the opportunity to perform. But the moment she was given the cue, she changed her mind. And although scratching and sniffing seemed to Megan an act of defiance, I knew that Missy was actually giving stress signals. Missy was worried about touching Megan’s hand. Why was Missy worried? Just the week before, Missy was running from across the room to place her nose in Megan’s hand. What had happened?

I decided to watch Megan and Missy work together. Megan called Missy to her and asked her to sit. Missy happily placed her rear on the floor. Megan clicked, praised her dog with a pat on the head, and then gave her a treat. I had my answer. What we had was a case of a poisoned cue.

What are poisoned cues?

A cue is the “green light” that tells the dog it’s time to do a behavior. A cue can be anything that the animal can perceive: verbal, visual, environmental, a scent, a sound, or a touch. A cue can be trained—the word “sit” is a common verbal cue that means “put your rear on the ground.” Or, a cue can simply be learned from association—when I scrape the bottom of my ice cream bowl, my dogs perceive that as the cue to get up and make sad, starving, dog faces so I will let them lick the bowl.

As Karen Pryor describes in her newest book, Reaching the Animal Mind, a poisoned cue occurs when a dog associates unpleasant things with a cue. Because of these unpleasant associations, the dog will either hesitate to perform the behavior or not do it at all. We humans think of unpleasant as a reprimand or scolding, or painful, like a jerk on a prong collar. But what we think is unpleasant and what the dog thinks is unpleasant are often different. A slight tug on the leash, pulling on our dog’s collar, leaning over the dog, or, in Missy’s case, a pat on the head, can all be unpleasant.

People pat their dogs on the head every day. How can this possibly be unpleasant?

Take a moment and look around the room. Are you all alone? If you are, or if nobody’s looking, pat yourself on the forehead just above your eyes, as if you were patting a dog. Now imagine if it were somebody else’s hand. Here are these big fingers heading straight for your eyeballs and then moving around! The pat itself doesn’t feel very good, either! How would you feel if your boss patted you on the forehead every time you did something right at work? Would you start to avoid your boss? Avoid doing good things at work? Avoid work?

Once Missy realized that her owner was going to follow the nose touch with a pat on the head, Missy decided to avoid the pat by avoiding the nose touch. She was not being stubborn; she just didn’t want to be touched in that way. Poor Megan loves her dog and thought she was rewarding her dog. It was just a simple case of miscommunication.

Poisoned cues are more common than you think and are often the culprit when a dog is thought to be stubborn.

When cues go wrong

Poisoned cues are more common than you think and are often the culprit when a dog is thought to be stubborn. One of the most common cues to be poisoned is “come.” We frequently call our dogs, and then do unpleasant things to them. We call them and give them a bath. We call them and put them in their crates. We call them when they are studying the various aromas of the Great Outdoors and then make them come in where it is boring. Dogs are very smart and live their lives by the mantra “What’s in it for me?” They quickly learn that “come” equals unpleasant things. If coming to you is not more rewarding than the cool stuff outside, many dogs are going to run the other way.

Poisoned cues can be very subtle, too. Do you punctuate the cue “sit” with a light tug on the leash? Do you say your dog’s name when you are upset with him? I once had a client who frequently scolded her puppy, Sammy, using his name. She had not yet learned how to teach alternative behaviors or supervise her puppy, and was a frustrated new puppy owner. When we began training, I wanted to teach Sammy to make eye contact with his owner when she said his name. We started by clicking and rewarding when Sammy offered eye contact. Sammy was enjoying the training and doing very well at making eye contact. Then we added the cue: his name. The moment Sammy heard his name, he ran and hid under the couch. Poor Sammy thought he was in trouble every time he heard his name because of the many times he had heard, “Sammy, NO!”

When shopping for trainers, be sure to inquire about their methods of training before you sign on for classes. There are many trainers who will train a dog using positive methods, but feel that once the dog “knows” the behavior it is fine to punish the dog for not performing the behavior. Unfortunately, each of the cues taught this way will be poisoned. Not only will your dog not want to respond to the cues, but the training will become a vicious cycle—cue, no behavior, punishment, cue, no behavior, more punishment.

Poisoned cues are fairly easy to fix. All you have to do is re-teach the behavior and add a new cue.

What to do with a poisoned cue

Now that you are looking for poisoned cues around every corner, here is some good news. Poisoned cues are fairly easy to fix. All you have to do is re-teach the behavior and add a new cue. It is very important to re-teach the behavior, as you cannot just transfer a poisoned cue to a new cue. Don’t worry—your dog will remember the behavior, so re-teaching will most likely happen pretty fast. Add that new cue and know that you have put your dog at ease by throwing out the poisoned cue. Be careful not to poison the new one!

Take some time to observe your dog in different circumstances. What is its body language like when relaxed, playing with you, playing with another dog, barking at the postman, walking through the park, getting a pat on the head, etc? What body language does your dog offer that can clue you in to its emotional state during these interactions? How high is the tail? Is it wagging slowly? Fast? How is your dog holding its ears? Is the dog licking its lips? Yawning?

As for Missy, Megan re-shaped the nose touch and taught Missy the cue “nose.” Megan’s bond with her dog is even stronger than before now that she is no longer patting her dog on the head. She has learned to watch Missy’s body language. Missy is once again happily touching Megan’s hand from across the room and enjoying every part of her training.

About the author
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Rebecca Lynch is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner. She is an experienced dog trainer, veterinary technician, and K9 Search and Rescue officer. Founder of K9 Clicking dog training, Rebecca's goal is to strengthen the bond between human and animal through positive training and communication.