We think of cues as something you must deliberately attach to a behavior, with a reinforcer to follow. "Sit" is the name for an act. If your dog responds to the cue by executing the behavior correctly, you will do something nice for him. That's a discriminative stimulus, linked to a behavior, followed by a reinforcer. Plain operant conditioning.
But you can also give cues that are purely information, not deliberately trained as antecedents to a particular response. For example, my dogs have a "wait" cue. It means, "Stop where you are, please." It's not a "stay," I don't make them wait interminably. It's not a behavior I deliberately trained, really. It's information about what I myself am going to do.
We go out the front door and I realize that as usual I have forgotten the poop bag, or my scarf or gloves if it's cold. I say "wait" and duck back in the house. "Wait" means something on the order of, "She's going back inside and she'll be right out again, so we'll just stand here." At first I looped the leashes around the doorknob in a sort of token restraint, but after a few times, I didn't have to do that any more. Now I just drop the leashes.
The dogs don't take advantage of my brief absence to go sniffing around, or to look for squirrels; they just stand still. In fact they will stand still even if they are half-way down the front steps when they hear "wait." Twitchett, who is elderly and stiff, turns sideways on one step; Misha, who is long-legged and nimble, just freezes with his front end on one step and his hind end on another.
I use the "wait" cue when I am going to the car just to retrieve a package, not to take the dogs for a ride. And they stand still. I use the "wait" cue when I stop during a dog walk to chat with a neighbor, or when I'm fumbling for the car keys in a parking lot. It's handy, and a lot easier for the dogs than learning a formal down/stay, which in my opinion puts them in a very vulnerable position out in public.
Using the informational cue to overcome fear
A recent post on the zoo training list (open only to members of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association) made me think about the wider training implications this kind of cue, which, instead of telling your learner what to do, tells the animal something about what you yourself are going to do. A keeper asked the list for advice on rapidly crate-training a raccoon. The animal was to be moved or shipped or something, and the keeper was given what looked like an impossibly short deadline.
Of course it's just like crate-training a dog; you shape attention to the crate; you shape approaching the crate. When the animal goes into the crate voluntarily you start delivering the food inside the crate. As a good shaper, sometimes you ask the animal to stay in longer, sometimes shorter, before clicking, alternating between harder and easier, so things don't always get worse. One keeper had an excellent additional suggestion: from the very beginning, move the crate to different places in the enclosure so the animal focuses on the crate, and not on some specific location.
However, as we all know from experience, the real challenge comes when you start trying to close the door, with the animal inside. Here's the suggestion that really caught my attention. Tell the raccoon what you are going to do.
The raccoon is going into the crate willingly. Now you are ready to get it used to the closing of the door. Before you start, however, say "door." Then touch the door, click, remove your hand, and treat. Each time you start to reach for the door, give the cue that you are going to touch the door, stop touching the door after you click, and pay the animal for staying in the cage doing nothing.
The next step is to say "door," and move the door a few inches and back, click and treat. I'm sure you can see that you can quickly raise the criteria. Soon you will be able to say "door," shut the door, open it, shut it, open it, shut it, pick up the crate, put it down again, open the door, and then click and treat, with the animal staying calmly inside the whole time. After all, from the raccoon's standpoint, the animal is in total control! "All I have to do is sit here and let her do her door stuff, and she will click and treat."
This is FAR faster than desensitization, gradually escalating door moves and hoping the animal will get used to it. It is also faster than just clicking and treating for sitting still as the door moves, with who knows how much interior fear building up as the moves escalate. The cue tells the animal what you are going to do, and that vastly reduces the fear.
Also, as we know, cues are reinforcers, and this powerful aspect of the cue now works in your favor. Every click and treat makes your information about what you are going to do—mess around harmlessly with the door—also a cue to the animal to stay calm and stay still.
Thinking back to training mistakes of my own, teaching tolerance of confinement is an easy thing to mess up. If you rush the job, if "just this once" you are in a hurry, your half-trained, reluctant and fearful animal (feral cat, shelter dog, unbroken colt, or whatever) may reach its breaking point and burst through the half-closed door. And THEN you have a huge re-training job ahead of you, because for days or weeks or more, just seeing the door move will remind the animal of the option of flight. Naming your own behavior protects you against that unfortunate circumstance.
So, where else could we use this cue about our own intentions? Emma Parsons has a nice procedure in her book, Click to Calm, for dealing with an aggressive dog. You see another dog coming, you fear your dog will explode, and you can't help tightening the leash. But suppose you have taught the dog that a tightened leash means that you are going to walk the other way, and will click your dog for coming with you. Rather than increasing the dog's anxiety, you have turned your own fear-generated behavior (stiffening, tightening the leash) into an informational cue: "We're going back the way we came now." Click, treat.
How might you use an informational cue about what YOU are doing, in clipping a dog's nails? Getting a cat into its carrying case? Handling a green horse's ears?
Try it out! I'd love to hear from you.