How three letters can help you train your dog

ready300There is a little word that has crept into dog training in the last few years.

It’s the word ‘cue’

A cue is a signal that is intended to trigger or initiate a response.

When I was a teenager, the only ‘cue’ I’d come across  was on a snooker table.

The signals we used, to tell dogs what to do, were called ‘commands.’And the reliable behaviour we expected from the dog was called ‘obedience’

This was the language of control and authority.  It felt safe and comforting. I would command my dog, and he would obey. Or not.

Why change?

So what is all this wishy washy nonsense about ?  Why have we changed from commands to cues.

cue-how-3-letters-can-help-you-train-your-dogFirst of all, I have to be honest, and say that I sometimes do slip back into using the word command.  It’s force of habit.  A habit built up over many many years.

But that does not mean I think ‘command’ is a better word.  I actually don’t.

I like the word cue, and this is why.

Science that makes sense

Just a few decades ago people began to recognise that dog training is actually a form of behaviour modification.  And that the process involved in dog training are best described by behavioural science.

Modern dog training pays a lot of attention to science, and this is a good thing.

You see, we tend to get quite emotional about dogs.  And use a lot of emotional language when describing the way people treat them.

Words like ‘harsh’  and ‘punish’ and ‘cruel’ are often bandied about when we discuss dog training.  And the problem is, no two people can agree on exactly what defines these powerful words.

A common language

If we are going to talk to one another about behavioural science, which is what dog training is,  it is helpful if we all speak the same language.  And the word ‘cue’ is a part of that language of animal psychology.

And like all scientific terms it is a useful word because its meaning is very specific.

A cue is a signal that is supposed to be followed by a specific action.   There is no emotion in the word cue.  It does not imply that the action will happen or should happen, just that it is intended to happen.

Avoiding disappointment

Command is a much more emotional word, it implies control, authority and power over another.  It embraces the absolute expectation that an action will result in response to the signal, or order.

And implicit in the word ‘command’, is a sense of disappointment if that response is not forthcoming.

Words like disrespectful, disobedient, wilful, and selfish spring to mind.

I know that when I was busy dishing out ‘commands’ to all my dogs, I used to feel quite angry if my commands were flouted.  Such is the expectations a command conveys.

The use of the word ‘cue’ disperses any such inappropriate assumptions.  Perhaps the most important feature of the word cue lies in the way it changes who is responsible for the outcome of the signal.

Who is responsible?

A scientist gives a cue and observes the response.  He records that response and if it is not the response he required, he adjusts his own behaviour in order to get that response the next time.

He doesn’t feel annoyed or disappointed if he doesn’t get the response, he simply alters his behaviour to ensure that the response is achievable.

A superior officer gives a command and expects a response.  He is under no obligation to observe or record the result, that is the responsibility of the recipient of the order.  If the recipient of the order fails to carry it out – he is usually punished.

So, the difference between these two words lies in the emotion and responsibility attached to them.

  • If a dog does not respond to a cue, the trainer has failed and must adjust his training accordingly
  • If a dog does not respond to a command, the dog has failed and must be punished.

A change in attitude

It is a very simple thing this small change in the word we use for the signals we choose in dog training, but with it comes quite a change in attitude.

Many of us have found it actually quite liberating to be able to stop blaming our dogs for being naughty.  And this simple three letter word plays an important part in this process.

Does the switch from cue to command make dogs naughtier?

You might be wondering, if we take away the whole idea of ‘compulsion’ from the training process, whether or not we will be abandoning control over our dogs.

There is often a misunderstanding of modern dog training in this respect.  A feeling that if the dog is ‘choosing’ to please us, he may just choose not to at some point.

A feeling that this new way of training is permissive, and will result in a disobedient dog.

A fear of losing control

All responsible dog owners want to be in control of their dogs.  For his safety and for the safety of those around him.

Yet the idea that training with ‘commands’ rather than ‘cues’ will result in a more obedient dog is quite flawed.

In fact the whole concept of total control is flawed.  It is an ideal.  The truth is, once a dog is out of your reach, you have no way of ‘guaranteeing’ control.

All you can hope is that your ‘trained responses’  –  the reactions the dog makes to the signals you give him – will hold up.

And the evidence suggests that this is more likely, if the dog has been trained using the modern system of teaching him that responding to cues is highly rewarding, rather than teaching him that disobeying commands is likely to result in punishment.

Its a funny thing language

Sometimes the smallest changes in meaning can have a profound effect.

As dog owners, who are by necessity ‘dog trainers’  we need to use every advantage we can.  And being clear on who is responsible for the outcome of any training session (that would be you) is an advantage that we would do well to acknowledge.

I think that swapping the word command, for the word ‘cue’ helps us to do just that.

How about you?

Have you changed from commands to cues?  Did you find it a helpful change in approach?

This website is brought to you by Pippa Mattinson

Pippa's book Total Recall is a complete recall training programme for puppies and adult dogs, and her Happy Puppy Handbook is a definitive guide to puppy care and early training

by Pippa Mattinson on November 18, 2014

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Beverley @ BrilliantFamilyDog June 30, 2015 at 12:21 pm

I like this.

Most people use cues and rewards without realising it. Loading your dog’s foodbowl is a cue; the dog comes when he hears this and his reward is to get his dinner. Putting on your coat for a walk is a cue; your dog runs to get his lead on and is rewarded with a walk. How easy was it to teach them these things – and get instant compliance!

One thing that keeps the “command” mentality alive is the social pressure to look as though you can control your dog. Parents no longer wish to look like Sergeant-Majors with their children. Time to ditch those ideas for your dog, too.


Pippa Mattinson June 30, 2015 at 5:08 pm

Great point Beverley, there is definitely social pressure to overtly display traditional signs of appearing to be in control (bossy voice, intimidating body postures etc)


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