Canine Communication – Cuing, Commands and Operant Conditioning

Cue vs Command

There is a big difference between a cue and a command. The difference has to do with choice.

A cue is something we give to the dog to elicit a response and they have the choice to either do it or not. If they do it, they get something nice – positive reinforcement and if they don’t they get nothing. It’s very simple. Soon the dog learns that performing on cue is good for them.

thinking in terms of cues instead of commands changes the working relationship between dog and handler.

Aussie Puppy Giving Attention

A command is entirely different. There is no choice – “do this or else”. If a dog blows off a command, something bad happens. That’s the structure, plain and simple.

We believe that a cuing a behavior is a much better fit for positive training and viewing our communication with our dogs as a cue instead of a command provides us with a very different understanding of how dog training works. It may seem a trivial or semantical difference, but thinking in terms of cues as opposed to commands allows the dog and handler to address training in a different manner.

All of a sudden the handler can wait for a behavior to happen instead of trying to make it happen immediately. The dog learns that he or she has the responsibility to figure out what the target behavior is and how to perform it. It takes a great deal of pressure off of both the dog and handler and allows us to both enjoy the learning process.

Learning as a Journey

Many people are very confused as to what constitutes learning. This is on display in both dog training and in human learning. The standardized testing that constitutes the new bedrock of our public schooling system is a great example of this misunderstanding. Passing the test has become synonymous with learning or intelligence. While there is a correlation between the ability to pass a standardized test and intelligence or understanding, they most definitely are not synonymous.

If I tell you,”The answer is ‘C’,” while you are taking a test,”Shut up and fill in ‘C’,” you might pass the test, but what do you really know?

You know that the answer to that particular question is ‘C’.

If I rephrase it, switch the answers around, or ask you to write an essay about it, you won’t be able to do it, because all you know is that the answer is ‘C’.

So you’ve passed the test, but you don’t understand the material.

Learning is a journey. It happens in the library, in discussions with your peers, in your homework through trial, error and repetition and by a host of other means. Testing is essentially the proofing of your understanding, of your knowledge.

If all you know is that the answer is ‘C’ you might pass the test, but you don’t really know much of anything.

Aussie Reverse Chest Vault

This is a very common problem with dog training and gives both dog and handler a ton of grief on a regular basis.

Learning vs Proofing

In the human learning illustration above, we can see that there is a difference between the learning process and the proofing process. Again, many dog trainers totally miss this and try to proof stuff immediately. That’s just not how learning happens. If we get hammered everytime we make a mistake on a task or problem odds are that we are going to, fairly quickly, try to avoid the activity.

Kids who don’t like school and dogs who’d rather do something else are perfect illustrations of this disconnect.

When a child is learning to tie their shoe, their parents are extremely forgiving and understanding,”Oh, that’s very nice!” and “Oops, that’s not quite it… there you go! Excellent! YAY!!!”

We wouldn’t get very far commanding our children to tie their shoes from the get go and punishing them for not having the skills to accomplish the task.

An individual needs to have the tools to accomplish a behavior before they are cued or commanded to do it, otherwise they are set up for failure and promote avoidance.

When to Add the Cue

We tell our clients,”Until you are willing to bet a hundred bucks that the behavior will happen, right now, don’t cue it… not $5, not $10, not $20, but $100.”

This helps them grasp the idea of Learning as a Journey and the difference between Learning and Proofing.

There are several reasons for this timing on adding the cue, but the most important one in our opinion is that we can ensure that there’s 100% compliance and performance of the cued skill right from the get go.

If you put a cue on a behavior immediately, as you begin teaching it, you get 30-50% compliance – you’re teaching a 50%, at best, skill. That means 50% of the time, the dog is going to not perform a skill when it is cued. 50% compliance, as a foundational understanding of a cued behavior is not a strong foundation for 100% compliance. It’s much better to have 100% compliance from the get go.

50% compliance on a commanded behavior simply ensures that the dog will have to take corrections in order to learn, and that is hard on both dog and handler.

Another reason for waiting to add the cue is to get a greater understanding of the behavior.

Dogs don’t generalize well and putting a cue on a behavior at the outset of learning teaches a very specific understanding of that behavior.

It’s better to generalize a skill than it is to generalize a cued skill.

Dog Waving on Beach

If I verbally cue,”Sit,” as I’m teaching a sit in front of me paired with a lure, I’ve just taught the dog that sit means “get in front of me and put your bottom on the ground”.

Distance is standard. Position is standard. The skill is standard.

So what happens when we alter the distance? How about move to heel position? Give the cue,”Sit,” and the dog will walk up or slide out in front of us to where Sit happens.

We believe it’s better to generalize the skill than it is to generalize the cue. Generalizing the skill means that the cue can have a much broader meaning and will be consistent instead of a very specialized meaning and seem to be inconsistent to the dog.

Staying on Task

While we wait for the dog to choose to perform a cued behavior, that behavior should happen. If it does not, we need to have some kind of negative consequence (i.e – no cookie or end of session) and/or we need to go back and brush up on that particular skill.

Often, cuing a behavior during a training session that is not integral to the task at hand gets in the way of learning.

Cuing a ‘Sit’ behavior during a vault session, for instance, can totally kill the mood and flow of the training session if the dog chooses to not do it. Not complying with a commanded sit can result in a nasty consequence that also can damage the session.

We tend to work around this by not asking for a things that are not directly related to the task at hand, and if a behavior that is integral to the success of the skill we’re working is not well understood, then we need to go and polish up that skill before we try to integrate it into the larger, more complex skill we’re wanting to work.

To not do so will result in a hit or miss training session and a poorly performed behavior.

Relating this to Sport

You can’t make your dog play Frisbee, run Agility, do Freestyle, play Flyball or Dock Jump. It just doesn’t work that way. The more we push, prod, correct and coerce, the more the dog wants to be somewhere else.

What we want to do is to make these games fun. It is a treat to play these games, a special opportunity. When it’s a special opportunity or a treat to play them, our dogs are going to jump through hoops to play them.

It’s not much fun to play a game full of failure, punishment and/or tedious requirements.

The most successful teams and the ones most fun to watch are the teams that have fun playing. I’m sure you’ve seen teams that seem to be going through the motions or who seem somehow mechanical in their performance, and while they do win on occasion or even frequently, they’re not the people that turn people on to the game.

It’s not much fun to play a game full of failure, punishment and/or tedious requirements. That’s a pain in the…

It takes both a unique kind of person and dog to do that. It does happen, but it’s no method for success.

Opportunity, Operant Conditioning and Belief

Dogs are opportunists.

Don’t believe me? Watch a young dog grab a sock and whip up a fun game of chase. Leave some low hanging fruit on the coffee table and leave the room. Leave the garbage out.


Most dogs will jump at the opportunity to score in those situations.

They can be taught to not take the opportunity, but that’s not the point. The point is that dogs will, more often than not, take the opportunity if they believe that they’ll get something nice. No training involved.

Being operant means that there is an understanding that behavior affects consequence. Let your dog get some tasty garbage a few times and they learn that the garbage can is a wonderful thing, and it’s not easy to convince them otherwise.

The above behaviors drive handler’s crazy because they seem to be nearly impossible to stop. The reason they are so hard to stop is that the dog believes in them. They’ll get in the garbage even if there’s nothing in there of value because the dog believes that it is an opportunity that should not be missed. Same with socks and a game of chase and the low hanging fruit on the coffee table.

As long as there is an opportunity for a positive consequence you can bet that the behavior will continue.

We can get the same kind of unstoppable behavior in our chosen games if we can get the dog to believe that their actions make their consequence. If your dog believes that dropping the disc makes the next one appear, they will spit that disc out when asked.

If they believe that sitting gives them access to their food bowl, they’ll do it without you making them. Heck, they’ll do it, all by themself, when you open up the cupboard to get their food.

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Throwing with Intent is throwing a disc to your dog with the intent to make them look good. Throwing the disc to promote a big leap, to hit the dog in stride on the run or throwing a disc that your dog is going to flip for 10 yards away, is the sign of a mature handler.


  1. What a great piece! One of the best I ‘ve read around. You gotta make your dog believe. That says it all!

  2. Didn’t get to read this whole post, but in a quick scan, saw the words “Learning vs. Proofing” – I kid you not, twenty minutes ago I wrote a blog post on this, showing some videos of me screwing this up with Cricket. I’ll be interested in learning to pay more attention to this!

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