Tag: Stay

Replacing a Poisoned Cue

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.

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My Dogs Don’t Know Sit!

My Dogs Don’t Know Sit!

What if your dog’s cue for a behavior is not what you think it is? Can you be sure—absolutely sure—that the dog really understands what you want?

That’s another place where punishment-based training can really go awry. How often are dogs punished for failing to perform when they just don’t understand? I think it’s much more often than most people realize.

My dogs are pretty good at sitting. But their cue for sit and stay is not what I intended it to be. Luckily I figured that out. I know exactly where the problem came from and how to fix it, should I decide to. And perhaps by sharing, I’ll help some others who might be in the same boat.


The Three D’s

Dog trainers often talk about the “three D’s” in training: duration, distance, and distraction. Each of these represents a set of challenges for the dog.

When working up a stationary behavior such as a sit/stay (or even a moving behavior such as walking on leash, but let’s limit the discussion to stationary behaviors for now), you need to gradually work up the length of time the dog can do it. That’s what we call duration.

But even if your dog can hold a sit/stay for 60 seconds while you are standing right there that doesn’t automatically mean she can do it if you park yourself 10 feet away. That’s distance. Distance needs to be specifically and gradually taught. It’s a challenge for several reasons. Principal among them is that for most dogs’ early training, the reinforcement usually happens right there on their person or close by. They will tend to follow you when you move away.

And even if your dog can hold her stay while you quietly stand 10 feet away from her there is another challenge. Distraction. Can she stay if you drop your treat bag? If another dog in the family trots by? If you go sit in a chair (surprisingly hard, since dogs often associate that with the session being over)? If the doorbell rings? If her best friend comes in the room? If you toss her favorite toy in her direction? You get the picture.

Most trainers train the three D’s in roughly the order above. Get a little duration first before introducing the other challenges. Then train distance, then distraction. (Distance is just a particular kind of distraction, anyway.) But what happens if you jump straight to the other challenges early on? You’ll see in the movie.

My Achilles Heel: Duration!

When teaching the very beginnings of duration, one usually silently counts seconds. There are different protocols for going about this, but the idea is to gradually lengthen the amount of time the dog stays in position without being released. With behaviors like holding a dumbbell, you usually have to start with increments of 10ths of a second to get that first bit of duration. With sits and downs, the dog can generally already perform the behavior for a second, maybe two, so you start there and work up.

I get terribly bored just standing there teaching duration, so my most common error as a trainer is starting to move around too soon. What has happened as a result is that my moving away has become part of the cue for “stay.” Oh-oh. If I don’t move, they don’t believe me. You can see that in the video.

Here’s how long each dog lasts on her sit/stay when I just stand in front of her.

  • Clara: 4 seconds until she breaks position to nudge my hand, and 4 more until she stands up.
  • Summer: 1 second until she goes into a down.
  • Zani: 1 second until she goes up into “sit pretty,” another 2 seconds until she goes into a down.

That’s pretty embarrassing. But also note in the video that when I move away immediately after giving the cue, they can hold their sits successfully through duration, distance, and distractions.  They can all last several minutes when I do that, with distractions including tug toys dropped in their vicinity, my walking around or actually leaving the room, and all manner of food placed out to tempt them. Again, their cue to stay is my movement much more than my verbal cue.

Edit, 2/9/16: In the movie, I dubbed in the word “Fail” when each dog broke her stay, to mark how fast that happened. A viewer’s comment caused me to realize it sounds like I’m using a No Reward Marker. I wasn’t. It’s only in the voiceover, not from the training session. And in case it’s not clear: the failure is never theirs. It’s mine.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

What Did They Do Instead of Staying in a Sit?

Each dog switched to a behavior that had been recently and heavily reinforced. Summer went into a down on the rug. She had a tactile cue (soft surface under the butt) to perform her mat behavior.  Zani tried “sit pretty,” which we have been working on in that very place, before Cue giving pawtrying a down as well. Clara tried a stand, which we have also been working on in that area of the house.

It’s a beautiful example of the dogs’ reinforcement history taking over when they are unsure.  I didn’t give what to them has become the “real” cue for a sit/stay: for me to move away and start doing random things and providing distractions. So each dog gave up but each tried something different: what has most recently been reinforced in that context.

This kind of thing happens all the time. Frequently we don’t actually know what the cue is for the dog. And in the absence of that special cue, they revert to guessing and expressing their reinforcement history.  It is often a reason people think their dogs are “giving them the paw.” That’s very sad, since what the dog is doing is trying to get it right in the face of unclear instruction.

Contributing Factors

There were several other reasons for their failure to sit and stay. As I mentioned, reinforcement history contributes. A lack of confidence in verbal cues in general (because I don’t always work hard enough on cue recognition and stimulus control with them) is another. The fact that I generally encourage them to offer behaviors is yet another; they have nothing to lose from guessing. And finally, though I hate to mention this, I don’t use a “stay” cue. I’m not a good example of that practice, which can work perfectly well when one is clear about the cue to begin with! But adding in a “stay” could probably make up for some of my other frailties as a trainer.

Can They Really Not Do It?

Of course they can hold a sit/stay with me standing right there. I’ve mentioned before that I do a lot of my training following Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. One of the early steps of sit/stay (Level 2 Sit) is to work up to 60 seconds when you are standing in front of the dog. All of my dogs have performed that stay many times, starting early on in our training relationship. But in the course of life, I don’t use that behavior much. I don’t ask my dogs to sit for long periods, especially with me standing right there. I use down much more often, so the sit/stay breaks down.

Summer Zani sit stay

But it takes only a few minutes to get that sit/stay duration back if I want it. Even in the course of filming the above “failures,” the dogs started working up their duration again. I could have a minute long sit/stay from every one of them after a couple of training sessions. But honestly, I’ll probably let it lapse again.

In case you would like to see a lovely “real life” sit/stay, here is Zani doing a short agility run (in which we won first place, I might add). Being parked in front of a jump standard is another clear cue for her to hold a sit/stay.

The Map of Reinforcement

I’ve mentioned my concept of the “map of reinforcement,” something I started to see once I learned and really internalized that behavior was driven by consequences. I wrote about this at length in my post, “What Dog Training Really Taught Me.” What the dogs tried instead of sitting and staying showed a map of what had been reinforced. And here’s something related: my dogs’ behavior is also map of my behavior. Yep. Whenever all three of my dogs have the same “failure,” it’s a pretty sure bet that it is something that I am consistently doing. An experienced trainer could look at the movie and know exactly what I did when training to cause my dogs to break their stays as they did. I know what I did, too. The fact that I don’t always fix stuff like that is perhaps why I’m a writer and not a dog trainer!

Care to share situations where you found out that the cue for the dog was not the cue you thought you were giving? And has anybody else done this particular silliness with duration behaviors?

Related Posts

Copyright 2015 Eileen Anderson

Release Me!

Release Me!

Three dogs waitingHey! It turns out I have some bragging rights I haven’t collected on. So here goes.

Back in Spring 2013, I wrote two posts about practical issues with multiple dogs that were both quite popular.

A Secret for Training Two Dogs delineated a trick I learned about how to train one dog to wait quietly, unconfined, while another is actively trained.

The Right Word: Reducing Errors in Verbal Cue Discrimination is related to the first, in that it described how I taught my dogs their unique cues for individual releases. If you train more than one dog, and they are waiting quietly as mentioned above, you need to be able to tell one that it is her turn, right? And the others need to ignore that cue and wait for their own. I taught the individual release cues following the guidelines of errorless learning (which I refer to as reduced error learning, following the terminology lead of Dr. Susan Friedman).

Both of the above posts had movies attached with real life training.

At the end of the movie about teaching individual release cues, I was still working with the dogs one at a time, but I promised to show more as we improved. By this time,  almost two years later, I use these cues virtually every day.

It seems that stays, boundary training, and releases are trendy “show-off” exercises right now. So I’m going to show off a little, but I also want to direct people to the idea of using positive reinforcement to train these very useful behaviors.

As it happened, I taught the releases with almost pure positive reinforcement. There was a tiny bit of extinction, for when the dogs made wrong guesses, but I minimized that as well.

In today’s video I am showing the end behavior as I use it in my house. If you want to see how I trained it, click on the blog names above.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Link to my YouTube playlist: Helpful Behaviors for Households with Multiple Dogs

I would love to see a proliferation of positive reinforcement based videos of individual releases and boundary training with happy dogs. Anybody else up for it?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube 

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

I Will Teach You What I Want You To Know: Puppy Lesson Six

I Will Teach You What I Want You To Know: Puppy Lesson Six

You are not born with the skills to be successful in my world. It’s up to me to teach you.–Marge Rogers’ pledge to her puppy, Zip

In case you hadn’t noticed, all these “puppy lessons” are lessons for the trainer as much or more than for the puppy. But Lesson Six most of all.  In this lesson, Marge makes a pledge to Zip: She will remember that it is up to her to teach him what he needs to know and how to act in order to be happy in our strange human world.

It’s not a question of “obedience.” It’s more like someone explaining to a dear friend how best to get along in foreign country.

So much of our normal approach to dog training is that of solving “problem behaviors” that bother us (usually after they have gotten established). Nine times out of ten (that’s a made up statistic, but I bet it’s true), the problem behaviors are just regular old “out of the box” dog behaviors that don’t fit well in our human world. You know, chewing stuff up, stealing food, jumping on people, digging holes, barking too much, nipping at fingers. These things aren’t evil. They usually just aren’t convenient for us. But throw in the mythology of dominance, where we are told that dogs are continually challenging our authority, and these natural dog behaviors can cause a dog to lose its home or its life.

What you will see in this movie is the opposite of that. The most important word in the movie is “teach.” Thoughtful, preemptive teaching such as Marge is doing is a win/win for human and dog. Puppy learns a palette of fun, acceptable behaviors via positive reinforcement. He develops skills for even more fun and learning with Marge. He develops good associations to the world through careful exposures. Marge gets a lovely, well behaved dog and Zip gets a big, big world to play in.

Marge promises Zip: "I will do my best to help you be confident and happy."
Marge promises Zip: “I will do my best to help you be confident and happy.”

Marge points out in the movie that puppies are not born with the skills to get along perfectly in the human world. And it’s actually worse than that: they are born with behaviors that are actively troublesome to us. For instance, “See food. Eat food,” as Marge puts it. The counter surfing dog is not challenging our authority. He is doing what comes naturally: scarfing up whatever is available. And once he finds something up there, it will be tough teaching him never to go there again. It will make little sense to his doggie brain. It’s not about authority, it’s about availability. How much better would it be to teach him never to go there in the first place? Never get that first sweet reinforcer for counter or table surfing.

Hence, Marge will teach Zip habits that are incompatible with inappropriate scavenging. Marge used to have much bigger dogs (mastiffs, then ridgebacks) and I was going to tease her and say she finally got a dog who couldn’t reach the counter, but I can hear Sue Ailsby laughing at me. Porties are said to be incorrigible counter dogs. But Marge is a match for that. As you’ll see in the movie, she has her special “magnetic mat” in the kitchen door that has thwarted many a potential food thief.

Whose Benefit?

My favorite part of the movie is when Marge has Zip in her lap for administering eye medication and getting a toenail trim. She prioritized handling (building positive associations with classical conditioning) and has a pup who is all squishy in her lap: relaxed and trusting. She has the benefit of being able to do some tricky husbandry behaviors with a cooperative puppy. But Zip is the big winner here. He doesn’t fear the grooming table, the clippers, the medication bottle, or Marge’s hands, for that matter.

My heart still gets all mooshy when I see people doing training that doesn’t have human preferences as the sole prompt. This whole movie is dedicated to Zip’s welfare every bit as much as Marge’s convenience. The more things our dogs are comfortable with, the more skills our dogs have, the wider their worlds can be.


Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Let’s Train!

Marge’s summary to Zip after the six Life Lessons (so far!):

These are my life lessons for you, my sweet puppy. And for me too. Now, let’s train!

Related Posts

Life Lessons for My Puppy (a blog page with all the puppy lessons)

Other Good Stuff

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Marge’s Channel on YouTube: Subscribe!

Marge’s FaceBook business page: Rewarded Behavior Continues



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