Dog Training: Understanding Poisoned Cues
Understanding Poisoned Cues
What is a poisoned cue? Karen Pryor in her book ''Reaching the Animal Mind'' explains ''a poisoned cue occurs when a dog associates unpleasant things with a cue''. Cues, are most commonly, verbal commands we give to our dogs, however, there are many other cues dogs attend to, such as body movements, scents and sounds. Cues, therefore, precede behaviors and virtually tell the dog what to do next.
There are a plethora of examples of how dog owners may involuntarily poison their cues and then end up wondering why their dogs are no longer responding to them. As a dog trainer, I often hear dog owners making claims such as ''Rover used to always come when called, but lately he is being extra stubborn or lazy'' or ''Maggie no longer does her sits, I think she is testing me''. However, there are many dynamics that may go on in a dog's mind before accusing a dog for being stubborn or lazy, and at times, all it takes to solve the issue is a closer look into what really happens in a dog's mind.
The Recall: The Most Poisoned Command Out There
In my experience, one of the most poisoned cues in the dog training world is the word ''come!'' or whichever command is used to call a dog. There are a myriad of examples of how easily a come command may be ruined irreparably. For instance, dog owners at the dog park most likely call their dogs when it is time to leave. The recall command, therefore, becomes poisoned when the dog starts to associate being called with having the leash snapped on and going home. Same goes with owners who call their dogs to only subsequently engage them in tasks they may dislike, such as nail clippings, baths, ear cleanings, and so forth. It comes as no surprise, therefore, why Rover may no longer want to come when called when he most often gets an unpleasant surprise. He may consequently appear to be ''lazy, stubborn, or disobedient '' in the dog owner's eyes, when all he is doing is trying to protect himself from undesired happenings.
Other Potentially Poisoned Commands
There are of course, many other poisoned commands, and at times, they may also degenerate due to physical ailments. For instance, a dog suffering from arthritis may start becoming reluctant to lay down on command due to pain, and day after day, it may resent being asked this command. A dog who is repeatedly asked to sit while the owner unknowingly leans forward, may become hesitant to comply simply because it feels intimidated by such posture. Same goes with a dog asked to sit by pushing down on its rump or a dog asked to heel may if the command is followed by a leash tug. All these examples show how a command, which in the initial stages of learning was perceived as pleasant because followed by treats or praise, has now become ''unpredictable'' and ''ambiguous'' because followed by something unpleasant.
Dog trainers have a keen eye when it comes to recognizing poisoned cues, and it goes far and beyond seeing hesitancy or refusal. There are several signs that an untrained eye may fail to recognize such as subtle stress signals and displacement behaviors.
How to Recuperate a Poisoned Command
The poisoned cue can be easily solved by simply re-naming it and refreshing it with a few training sessions. So if a dog, for instance, has learned that ''come'' often means ''time for bath time'' you are better off teaching a whole new command that still means ''come near me'' but has a positive new twist. You may, therefore, try using ''over here!'' said in a happy tone of voice and followed by something the dog likes. This means giving a dog a treat, playing with him, praising him or giving him a nice scratch.
But what should an owner do when it is time to go home from the dog park, or have to actually give the dog a bath? Calling your dog in these circumstances using ''over here!'' will likely becomes poisoned as well! The solution is to call your dog, praise your dog for coming and then briefly engage the dog for some time in something it likes. If at the dog park, therefore, this may mean playing some tug-of-war before snapping the leash on and then walking a lap around the park before leaving. In the case of bath time, you would call your dog ''over here!'' in a happy tone of voice and allow him to eat a small pile of treats before you carry him to the bathtub. This helps ''break'' the association so the ''over here'' cue is no longer associated with something unpleasant. Of course, to go to the root of the problem it would be even more helpful finding a way to make bath time fun in the first place!
As seen, not all is lost when a cue becomes poisoned. Thankfully, dogs are forgiving creatures, which promptly bounce back, swiftly recovering from the damage done. Happy training!