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Cues Vs Commands Part II

Remember this video from yesterday? We were talking about "cues" versus "commands" when working with dogs, and I was saying how for this dog, in training for autism work, his trained support pressure needs to be reliable when the handler needs it, *not* when she can rationally and logically command him to do it.

So, is this dog (it's Rocco, by the way, a talented Golden Retriever) responding to a "cue" or to a "command?" If so, what is it? And how do you train such a thing??? (I know! I promised you yesterday that I'd tell you!)

First off, this dog is working off environmental cues. An environmental cue is when the environment or something that happens in the environment happens and then the dog responds in a certain way. This might sound really rare and challenging, but actually it happens all the time. For example, take your dogs leash off the hook, and your dog might start bouncing and spinning all over the place! Not the behavior that you want, but it's something you may have inadvertently trained your dog to do -- on an environmental cue!

Rocco's environmental cues for this are 1) "yelling", and 2) the handler "falls out" of connection with the dog. Yelling is obvious, but "falling out" of connection with the dog means that the handler stops focusing on the dog, changes focus, may drop the leash or just holds onto the end, and basically leaves the dog to its own devices. You'll see in this video that at one point he ends up tangled in his own leash and the handler (that's me handling, by the way -- aren't I a good actress? LOL) does not even notice. An experienced service dog will notice when that that happens and start working to bring the handler back, even before there's escalation to yelling.

How did we train that?

First off, we had to make sure that Rocco was comfortable working around yelling, angry voices. Most dogs (and most people) do not like this. We used a technique called "classical conditioning" to make sure that Rocco not only tolerated yelling, but actually perked up when he heard it and trotted off to seek it out. He will also be monitored for life to ensure that he's not developing stress, disliking his job, or experiencing any other burn-out type symptoms (similar to the need for social workers and ER doctors to carefully monitor their own mental health.)

Rocco was taught a shoulder target to hip and then target/lean. We used a technique called "capturing" to train this behavior. With capturing, you basically just wait until the dog does something on its own, then reward it. Rocco had a lot of trouble with this part, because he's used to being in heel position or at least to politely avoid crowding and pushing the handler, so this step took a while.

But once he could do the target, we added a "transitional" cue so that we could get better control of the behavior while we worked to put it on environmental cue. The transitional cue is that left arm of mine sort of sticking out and diagonally towards the ground. Do you see it in the video? It's subtle. This gives him a "space" to move in and do his target. 

Once he was doing it on the transitional cue, time to move up to the final environmental cue. You always follow the same technique to introduce a new cue -- it goes 1) New cue 2) Known cue 3) Behavior 4) Reward! So, for Rocco, it went: 1) Yell 2) arm cue 3) Behavior 4) Petting.

In this video, we're transitioning off the transitional cue (ummm...I think that makes sense?) So there's very little transitional cue, just enough to "help" Rocco if he needs it, because you always want a dog in training to succeed. That builds confidence. I want Rocco to believe down to his very core that he can ALWAYS be successful at this task.

Other little tidbits to look for in the video are helping him problem-solve (could he get himself out of his tangled leash, with no handler help, and still come back to work?), monitoring stress (the "shake-off" after he got out of the leash tangle was probably a stress sign, showing that he found the entanglement uncomfortable or scary -- like I said we monitor him for stress, but service dogs have a stressful occupation ahead of them and do need to be able to handle stress, so a minor stressor like this one would have strengthened him, not weakened him), increasingly long petting times with awkward handler movement (the very last one, draping my full body over him), and practicing taskwork in a variety of locations (this was actually his first time doing this out "in public.") So there are lots of different elements of training going on here!

Interested in environmental cues? TRY THEM AT HOME! Remember that dog of yours who leaps and spins when you get the leash out? Why don't you put a "sit" on environmental cue of "leash comes out?"

Try this:

1) Pick up the leash. [This will be the environmental cue.]

2) Cue "Sit" (verbal or hand signal) [This will be the transitional cue.]

3) Dog sits.

4) "Good dog!" as you leash up.

Do that for a couple of walks. On maybe the 4th or 5th walk, drop your transitional cue, so it goes:

1) Pick up the leash. [Environmental cue.]

2) Pause and wait a few seconds, looking expectantly at your dog.

3) Dog sits.

4) "Good dog!" as you leash up.

If your dog has trouble sitting right away when you drop the "sit" cue, give him a few seconds to think about it. (Yes, it sometimes takes some moments for the wheels to start turning in their adorable little heads!) If after 3-4 seconds the dog still isn't sitting, then "help" the dog by cue "sit." Praise and leash, then try again!

There are endless possibilities for environmental cueing! Think of some! Let me know if you have any questions!

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