Replacing a Poisoned Cue

A woman reaching down and shoving her hand in the face of a stuffed dog, as if to tell it to stay. This became a poisoned cue.

Originally published in December 2012; expanded and revised for 2019. The video in this post was featured at Tate Behavioral’s ABA Conference in October 2019 by Dr. Megan Miller.

A poisoned cue is a cue that is associated with both reinforcing and aversive consequences. Poisoned cues were probably the norm for a period in some types of training, and still are common. If you tell your dog to “sit” and he gets a cookie if he sits but gets a push on the butt or jerk on the leash if he doesn’t, then “sit” is a poisoned cue. The term was coined by Karen Pryor.

It’s only once you start training without pain and discomfort that you and your dog find out about “unpoisoned” cues. In positive reinforcement-based training, a cue is a signal that means reinforcement is available for a certain behavior. Cues become associated with very good things. There is far less stress attached for the dog, since a wrong guess doesn’t carry a painful, uncomfortable, or scary penalty. You can see the joy on the faces of dogs who are trained with positive reinforcement when they hear a familiar cue.

Getting Rid of Summer’s Poisoned Cue

I am proud of the training I share in this post and video. I made a plan and successfully replaced a poisoned cue for my dog Summer, which improved her quality of life.

Summer, who passed away in 2017, was my crossover dog, and unfortunately carried some baggage from that. We took three levels of obedience courses at a traditional dog club. Although I had searched for positive reinforcement training after reading about it on the Internet, after looking around locally I figured maybe it didn’t actually exist in the real world. In the dog club I found a place where people cared for their dogs very much and were interested in training them, just not completely how I wanted to train (and sometimes not at all how I wanted to train). I did not partake of the harsher methods at the club, but as most of us know, even the less physical practices such as stern voices and physically pushing them into positions can be hard on lots of dogs.

How the Cue Got Poisoned

Summer was quite sensitive to pressure on her personal space. (Even Zani knew this. She regularly got 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 face, it was unpleasant for her. In addition, the stay exercise itself was probably scary. She was a 10-month-old stray when I got her 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.

I’ve come to realize over the years just what a difficult and unnatural behavior “stay” is. I admire Summer for learning it in that environment.

Here is a short YouTube video showing an AKC competition group sit stay. Watching it will explain the cause of Summer’s stress better than I ever could in words. The stay cue happens at about the one-minute point, but it’s worth watching the rest. 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. (The offleash version of the group stay has since been eliminated from AKC competitive obedience because of safety concerns.)

So even after I crossed over to positive reinforcement-based training, Summer responded to the stay cue with a flurry of stress behaviors, even though she did stay. For years I tried half measures to rehabilitate the cue. I tried to counter condition the verbal cue with pairing with treats. I softened my voice practically to a whisper. I decreased the hand signal until it was barely a twitch. But I still got reactions to the cue and hand signal, and also she consistently showed stress when I turned my shoulder away and left. 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 signals 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 understood, 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 related 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 smell and sight. So Kathy convinced me that not wanting to change my own habit was pretty selfish.

I picked a new verbal cue: “Hang out.” I wanted something that had relaxed connotations for me so I could always say it very pleasantly. I said it in a high, singsong voice.

A sable colored dog sitting by herself in a kitchen. Her body language is relaxed, her eyes are soft, and she is looking toward someone off camera. We have worked to replace a poisoned cue for "stay."
Summer hanging out

Retraining to Replace the Poisoned Cue

When retraining, I couldn’t use the “New cue/old cue” technique of teaching a new cue. This is an application of classical conditioning in which you repeatedly give the new cue just before the old cue. (Then reinforce the dog for responding with the right behavior.) The dog starts to make the association and “anticipates” the old cue by performing the behavior. Pretty soon you can pause after the new cue and the dog may respond! You can fade out the old cue as the dog responds earlier and earlier, finally responding to the new cue by itself.

But if I had done that, I would have brought the bad feelings attached to the old cue right along for the transfer. Instead, 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 already had a very nice stay, 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 applied classical conditioning in a different way. I associated her new cue with a great treat. I did cue/treat/cue/treat/cue/treat while she was in a sit or down. I did this for several sessions and a few hundred reps. I was serious about this rehabilitation. I wanted the cue itself to have great associations. This wasn’t pure classical conditioning since I did have the one contingency on her behavior: she must sit still. But realistically, what dog is going to move away when you are shoveling treats at them like I was?

Then I applied desensitization. My turning away from her was a big stressor, so I started with the tiniest piece of a turn away without moving my feet (then treat!) and ever so gradually working up to taking a step away. If I got a stress reaction, I knew I had gone too fast and would go back to an earlier increment that didn’t bother her. 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 crept in, even when “Hanging out.” I continued to do conditioning on the verbal cue and especially the turning away, which seemed 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. The whole experience was so dissimilar to what we had done in obedience class (“You better believe it!” said 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. In the second half of the video I show some of the training.

Video: Replacing a Poisoned Cue

>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: This video shows the result of replacing a cue that was associated with stress, and shows some of the training involved.

2009 Watch Summer’s body language when I say “stay” and turn away.


>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: Head drop, eyes squinting. Look away.


>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: 2009. Lip lick, whale eye. Paw lift.

>>EILEEN IN MOVIE: “Sit. Stay.”

>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: 2009. Head drop, looking down. Whale eye.

2012 Now watch her body language during her new “stay” behavior with a new cue:

>>EILEEN IN MOVIE: “Hang out.”

>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: Soft eyes throughout. Slow blink and deep breath coming up.

Here’s where the stress came from. This is Summer’s old “stay” cue, as I was instructed to do it in a traditional obedience dog club in 2006.


>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: Here’s how that looks from the dog’s point of view.

Even though I softened the verbal cue and hand signal over the years, they remained stressful for her. In 2012, six years later, I finally replaced the cue. Here is how.

There were three things I needed to do something about.

The hand signal (I dropped it entirely)

The verbal cue  (>>EILEEN IN MOVIE: “STAY”)


And Summer’s stress during the moment I turn away.

So first I conditioned the new verbal cue by pairing it with food.

>>EILEEN IN MOVIE: Hang out. Hang out. Hang out. OK

>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: With me in different positions but always stationary. All she had to do was sit there.

>>EILEEN IN MOVIE: Hang out.

>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: We did several hundred repetitions.

Then I conditioned turns away without the cue.


>>EILEEN VOICEOVER: I took several days to work up to taking a full step.

If I went too fast and got a reaction, I backed up to smaller movements.

Only after many reps of both the cue and the movements did I put them together and start training stay with duration, distance, and distractions.

She seems so much more comfortable now.

Thanks for watching!


If you’d like to see another video that shows a mild stress reaction from Summer with the old stay cue during actual competition, check out the video embedded in my post “Helping a Reactive Dog Compete in Rally—And Why We Retired.”

By the way, I trained Zani and Clara without using an explicit cue for stay. Sit, down, and stand all mean to stay in that position until released. But since I trained Summer with a stay cue initially, I think we were both more comfortable using one.

Anyone else have to replace a poisoned cue or have to rehabilitate certain aspects of a behavior?

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2012

8 thoughts on “Replacing a Poisoned Cue

  1. Great video. Helpful details. I don’t see the whale eye though. Is this really something people saw from such a distance on a small video on a computer screen? I once had someone tell me Barnum had whale eye when I know he didn’t — he had a haircut, and because of Bouvie faces normally being covered with fur, if you just went by seeing any whites of his eyes, you’d always think he had whale eye when his hair was short unless he was asleep.

    1. Hi Sharon and thanks for your comments. You’re right that the second “whale eye” is not obvious, and I may have exaggerated by calling it that but my best guess it that it was for real. It showed up in slow motion, and is in keeping with the rest of her body language. She is doing high speed glancing around. In thinking about it, whale eye happens when the muzzle is pointing one way and the eyes are going a different way, i.e., it goes along with an averted face. I too have known dogs where you can see the whites of their eyes a lot. This still looks a bit different to me. I didn’t try to describe the ear set, but it is also stressed for her. This whole thing was devilish to describe because the main behavior, that kind of violent head drop she does, is not on anybody’s list of stress signals and is, well, idiosyncratic. But in observing her over the years I know that she is deeply stressed when she does that.

      1. OK, this makes sense to me: “Whale eye happens when the muzzle is pointing one way and the eyes are going a different way, i.e., it goes along with an averted face.” I just trimmed Barnum’s eyebrows tonight, and if I’m sitting next to him and he’s in profile, there’s plenty of white in the corner of his eye. Even when his eyes are soft. I guess I’m still feeling defensive about that because someone said it on a list (we are both on) and I was very upset that they thought he was that upset during training and that I hadn’t realized. I went back and rewatched it and disagreed with their assessment. I have learned a lot from you and others about reading dog body language, and one thing I’ve learned — particularly from your blog — is how you have to INTERPRET it in the context of the whole dog. Like, the head drop for Summer. I HAVE seen Barnum with whale eye — mostly when he was a puppy and over-excited or when someone was overwhelming him with what they thought was affection (and what he thought was scary) — and it looked quite different (and dramatic).
        By the way, I love the cue, “Hang out”! That is an awesome choice.

        1. That feels good to have helped a little. Thank you for telling me. I just did an image search for dogs with whale eye and I think what I said is fairly true. (That was a new observation for me.) If the dog is facing straight on, the eyes are looking to the side. Or it is looking straight at the camera but head is averted. Clara has this all around whale eye she does when she is highly aroused, like when we tug. I’ll have to get a picture of it sometime; it’s pretty scary looking. Anyway I’ve read–either Jean Donaldson or Patricia McConnell–that the thing to look for regarding stress is clusters of signals. I have found that to be a good guideline. And gosh, do I have some soft dogs! Zani licks her lips probably 50% of the time when I give her a cue during the day (not in training sessions). Clara’s front paw starts going up when she is the least bit concerned about what we are doing. That must have hurt when someone misinterpreted Barnum’s eyes and said that.

  2. Okay, I did not teach commands like sit, stand, lie down, as keep that behavior til another command.
    I would like to have behavior to keep present position until the next cue or release. Would I have to change my cue to each behavior???
    Tia,, Helen
    Your dogs are adorable.

    1. Hi Helen! Thanks for complimenting my dogs. I think they are adorable too. My theoretical answer to your question would be Yes. If you taught those behaviors with a stay cue, then stopping using that cue and changing the meaning to stay automatically is technically changing the meaning of the position cue. However, I’m not a professional, and you’d really benefit from the advice of someone with experience training a lot of dogs. You might want to join the ClickerSolutions Yahoo group or one of the positive or clicker training FaceBook groups and ask there. If you need a link to any of these places, let me know. That’s a really good question you are asking.

      1. thanks for replying. I will work this out.
        Yes, I have belonged to mentioned lists for years.

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