The Fuzzy World of Cues

In the retriever training world a cue is a trigger to elicit a trained behavior from a dog. Many refer to a cue as a command. We make a very large assumption when we assume that the dog is picking the same cue that we are using for a particular behavior. When the trainer says "sit" and the dog sits, is the dog reacting to the sound, “sit” or is he reacting to a visual signal, a consistent movement, probably subconscious, that the trainer makes whenever the trainer says, “sit?”. Is the cue really clear and distinct?

If you consider the way dogs communicate, you would deduce that the dog will preferentially pick a visual cue to respond to. Dogs communicate with each other almost entirely by reading body language.

Also consider the dog’s 14,000 years of evolution through domestication. Recent research suggests that early humans selected for dogs for domestication by picking those more attuned to human communicative signals. Research also demonstrates that dogs significantly read human behavioral characteristics as subtle as eye movements in the communication process. These factors would profoundly suggest that dogs prefer a visual to an auditory cue. When you say “sit” the dog is responding to your eye movement or your infinitesimal head movement or your slight posture change, not to the sound "sit."

A great example was given by Kathy Sdao at a recent Clicker Expo. It seems a prominent agility trainer and handler had a very talented dog that looked like a sure winner for the regional competition. The dog had won several local competitions in which he competed. In the regional competition he started great and then froze at the first turn. He was unable to take a simple directional cue.

Post-game analysis determined that the cause of the freezing was the absence of the trainer/handler’s ponytail. The handler usually wore her hair in a pony tail and subconsciously accompanied her directional cue with a head movement that gave a toss to her ponytail. For the regional competition, she had dressed more formally and had put her hair up. No ponytail. The dog was unable to respond because the cue that he had selected and learned was not present. He was using the ponytail toss as his cue to turn.

The most important characteristics of a cue are that it be clear and distinct. If you are not aware of what cue or cues the dog is selecting, then the chore of making that cue or those cues separate and distinct becomes quite difficult.

To add more confusion, here is a piece of Pavlov’s research which I came across recently:

Experimental Neurosis
One use of the procedure of differential classical conditioning is to determine how fine a discrimination an animal is capable of. With humans, of course, we can simply ask whether two tones sound alike or different, but with animals, we need to develop some nonverbal response by which they can communicate to the experimenter. Clearly if an animal can learn to respond differentially to two stimuli (cues), he can discriminate between them.

In an effort to obtain such information, Pavlov would first employ differential conditioning with stimuli (cues) that were quite dissimilar, say a very-high pitched tone versus a very low-pitched tone. He would then make them progressively more similar in an attempt to find out where the discrimination broke down indicating that the animal could no longer respond differentially. Interestingly enough, he found that when the stimuli (cues) became very similar, not only did the discrimination break down, so did the dog!

The dog would show obvious signs of fear and anxiety about the experimental situation, so that rather than standing quietly in the stock and salivating when appropriate, he would resist the situation. This behavior carried over to his total behavior. He would huddle in a corner of his living cage, cower at the sight of his familiar handler, refuse to eat regularly, and overreact to the slightest sound or distraction. Pavlov called this result an experimental neurosis because of its apparent similarity to many human neurotic behaviors, and he usually had to send the dog away from the laboratory for a rest cure of tender care in the country.

Fundamentals of Learning and Motivation by Frank Logan, 1970

Considering all the above factors, it appears to me that humans, thru ignorance, have a huge potential to not only thoroughly confuse a dog, but also to make him neurotic. Food for thought.