Commands vs. Cues: What are they, and why does it matter?

When you talk about training a dog, the conversation usually leads people to talking about various commands their dog knows. But, in class, I’m careful to always use the word “cue” instead of the word “command”. I’m not sure if my students notice my intentional phrasing, but there’s a critical difference between these two words when teaching our dogs.

To give a dog a command suggests you are authority and the dog has no choice in the matter. At best, this is misleading to people working with dogs, since it’s important to remember the dog always has a choice (whether we like it or not). When a dog doesn’t respond to a command, the owner feels pressure to be more authoritative, often saying the word louder or more directly, and sometimes physically manipulating the dog into the commanded position.

What gets left out when we think of these words as commands is our consideration for how well the behavior has been learned, how well it has been generalized, and what’s going on in the dog’s environment that has the potential to impact his response to the cue. Whether we like it or not, all of these things (and probably more I’m not thinking of at the moment) have a big impact on what the dog will do when you say that magic word (Sit, Off, Stay, Come, Leave It, etc.) A dog often looks stubborn when he “refuses to obey our command”. But there is so much more to consider, and considering these other factors will have you on the road to many more “obeyed commands” much more quickly.

So, what about a cue? A cue is like the green light that gives you the information that putting your foot on the gas is a good idea now. A cue tells the dog his opportunity to perform the known behavior is now. If the behavior has a strong reinforcement history, he’ll be excited about this opportunity, knowing good things are likely to follow.

This is how strong behaviors function. The dog knows the behavior and has learned the cue, and you’ve provided ample opportunity for the dog to be reinforced for responding correctly to that cue in a variety of situations. At that point, we can usually expect strong, enthusiastic responses to our cues – without having to command.

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