Today I’m sharing a hard-won victory and an improvement in my dog’s quality of life. I replaced a poisoned cue.
Summer is my crossover dog, and unfortunately carries some baggage from that. We took three levels of obedience courses at a traditional dog club. Although I had searched for positive training after reading about it on the Internet, after around looking locally I figured maybe it didn’t really exist in the real world. (Sad, I know.) I did not partake of the harsher methods at the club, but as most of us know, even the less physical practices are so different that many many things are going to be hard on most dogs.
Summer is quite sensitive to pressure on her personal space. (Even Zani knows this. She regularly gets Summer to move away from a desired spot just by lying down right next to her.) So when I taught Summer to stay by issuing a stern STAY “command” and rushing my open palm to within an inch or two of her muzzle, it was unpleasant for her. In addition, the stay exercise itself was probably scary. She was a 10-month-old stray and our bond was still tenuous. Hearing all the other trainers raising their voices at their dogs, and particularly my leaving her and walking away while she was surrounded by this activity, were also hard on her.
Here is a short YouTube video that shows an AKC competition group sit stay. Watching it will explain Summer’s stress better than I ever could in words. Imagine if this environment was your dogs’ introduction to the stay behavior! And all the problems are exacerbated if your dog is small, since she can be in physical danger during the stay exercise. NB: the offleash version of this exercise has since been eliminated from AKC competitive obedience because of safety concerns.
For years I tried half measures to rehabilitate our “stay” cue. I tried to counter condition the verbal cue with pairing with treats. I quieted my voice practically to a whisper. I softened the hand signal until it was barely a twitch. But I still got reactions to these two things, and also she consistently showed stress when I turned my shoulder away and started to walk away. I tried to counter condition that too, but the cues kept bringing the stress back.
Pretty clearly this was a poisoned cue. In positive reinforcement training, a cue is a signal that reinforcement is available for a certain behavior. A poisoned cue is one that has been taught with a mixture of reinforcement and an aversive, either deliberately or accidentally. So even though I used treats to reinforce Summer’s stays, both the verbal cue and the hand signal were poisoned not only by their intrinsic unpleasantness but by their association with what was initially a frightening experience for Summer. The cues came to mean, “Brace yourself because bad stuff is happening, and by the way you get a treat at the end if you make it that far.” I have written about my own personal experience with a poisoned cue here.
In addition I think Summer’s physical reaction, which usually included an abrupt drop of her head, was not only born of stress but had become a superstitious behavior as well. A tough combination to try to fix.
I finally got it, with some discussion and encouragement from my teacher, that I would have to re-teach the behavior with a new cue. Changing cues is one of my unfavorite things. Who wants to change their habits? But that is exactly what we are asking our dogs to do every time we train them. After watching Kathy Sdao’s wonderful “Improve Your i-Cue” DVD, I realized just how unfair I was being by not wanting to change my own behavior. Cues are comparatively easy for humans. We have language, and we usually choose a word that pertains to the behavior (although we don’t have to). For dogs, learning verbal cues is an exercise in pure memory, using a sense (hearing) that they don’t lead with. They take in information more readily with sight and smell. So Kathy convinced me that that was pretty selfish not to want to change my habit.
I picked a new cue: “Hang out.” I wanted something that had relaxed connotations for me so I could always to say it very pleasantly.
When retraining, I couldn’t use the “New cue/old cue” technique of teaching a new cue since any association with the old cue would undo my work. I had to start from scratch. I had to change or rehabilitate three things: the hand signal (I dropped it completely), the verbal cue, and the motion of my turning away from her. Since Summer understands the concept of Stay and has a very nice one, with distance, duration, and distractions, I wouldn’t need to retrain the advanced stuff extensively. I just had to build good associations with the cue itself and my initial leaving.
I started with an exercise in classical conditioning. Since Summer will automatically stay put when I ask her to sit or down, I would do so, then repeat the cue/treat/cue/treat over and over. I did this for several sessions and a few hundred reps. I wanted the cue itself to have good associations. This wasn’t pure classical conditioning since I did have the one contingency on her behavior: that she sit still. But realistically, what dog is going to move away when you are shoveling treats at them like I was? We could just as well consider that we practiced hundreds of mini-stays. Whatever you call this, we did a lot of it.
Then I practiced turning my shoulder away, again repeating the movement and treating over and over, then taking a step. If I got a stress reaction I would go back to the beginning with tiny movements. Only after I had done these things for many sessions over several days did I start re-teaching Stay in the usual way including adding the new cue.
We had a huge history to overcome. Her old reaction was such an entrenched behavior that pieces of it still creep in, even when “Hanging out.” I will continue to do conditioning on the verbal cue and especially the turning away, which seems to be the strongest trigger. This was a particularly difficult situation to rehabilitate, since there were so many longstanding triggers for her stress.
Changing a cue, even a poisoned one, is not always this extensive a project. I also had to replace her “Leave it” cue and that was much easier. I just stopped saying those words, trained the behavior per the Training Levels, and started attaching our new cue to that. The whole experience was so dissimilar to what we had done in obedience class (“you better believe it!” says Summer) that her old stress didn’t get triggered. I offer that as a ray of hope to the folks who watch the video and think, “Hundreds of repetitions? OMG!”
The video compares Summer’s “stay” behavior from some older clips from 2009, complete with stress reactions, and her new “hang out” behavior in 2012. The people who Like the eileenanddogs FaceBook page have already seen an informal video of these before and after behaviors. This version is fleshed out with more explanation, some body language analysis, and in the second half of the video I show a little 0f what we did for training.
By the way, I trained Zani and Clara without using an explicit cue for stay. Sit, down, and stand all mean to keep in that position until released. But I like having it both ways. Having a word that means stay that you can use in all sorts of situations is handy. Since I trained Summer with such a cue initially, I think we are both more comfortable using one. And one of these days I’ll teach Zani and Clara to “hang out” as well.
Anyone else have to replace a poisoned cue or have to rehabilitate certain aspects of a behavior?
Copyright Eileen Anderson 2012