Clicker Training Clinic Notes: Cues

This post is the second part of my notes about a horse clicker training clinic that I audited with Alexandra Kurland in Texas in February. Click here for part one.

On the first morning of the clinic, we had a lengthy and interesting discussion about cues. Alexandra Kurland had recently returned from Karen Pryor’s ClickerExpo, a large clicker training conference that is held twice a year. At ClickerExpo, Alexandra got some clever ideas about using cues to build duration from clicker trainer Kay Laurence. I’m a big fan of Kay Laurence. If you’re not familiar with Kay, she is a dog trainer from England. Kay is a very talented trainer and always seems to be testing new and better ways to train behavior.

In one of the lab sessions at ClickerExpo, Kay had participants playing with a recuing procedure for extending the duration of a behavior. Teaching duration can be difficult sometimes. Many trainers are good at shaping the initial behavior, but then find that it takes them a long time to slowly increase the duration of the behavior.

Usually, clicker trainers build duration in small increments. The animal earns a treat for doing the behavior for 3 seconds. Then, once the animal gets this, the duration is increased to 4 seconds, then 5 and then 6. If the animal makes a mistake, the trainer often recues the behavior or returns to a previous, easier criteria.

Kay’s recuing procedure tackles the problem of extending duration by building cues. Here’s how Kay’s recuing procedure works for increasing duration. (Note: This is how I understand it from attending Alexandra’s clinic and from discussing it with other people online.) First, build a small, solid unit of behavior that has a small amount of duration. This might consist of having a dog sit for 2 seconds, a horse lower his head for 3 seconds, or a horse walk 4 steps forward. The size of the unit will depend on your animal and the particular behavior. The behavior needs to be reliably on cue and needs to have been taught with positive reinforcement.

For this example, consider a horse who has been trained using clicker training to walk 4 steps forward when the trainer say “walk.” The great thing about clicker training is that when cues are trained with positive reinforcement, the cue can act as a reinforcer for other behavior. If you are not familiar with this idea, please see my post on Alexandra Kurland’s loopy training concept. I think the loopy training concept is at the core of this recuing procedure.

Now that this unit of walking 4 steps forward is solidly on cue, the trainer will use this unit to build duration. The trainer starts by cueing the horse to “walk.” Right before the horse is done with the unit (walking 4 steps), the trainer cues another unit of behavior. Then, right before the horse finishes the second unit, the trainer cues a third unit of behavior. At the end of this third unit (the horse has now traveled 12 steps), the trainer clicks and gives the horse a treat.

The trainer gives the re-cue right before the behavior unit ends but, importantly, while the behavior is still going well. Often, trainers wait and give the next cue when a behavior has already stopped or when the behavior is starting to fall apart. By doing this, the trainer could actually be reinforcing unwanted behavior (If this doesn’t make sense—read about loopy training.)

After some repetition of this, the animal will start anticipating the next unit. The animal recognizes the pattern and knows that you are going to cue again for a second and third unit of behavior. When this happens, the trainer can first fade out one of the middle cues and then both of the middle cues.

When both middle cues have been faded out, the trainer now has a new unit of behavior that is 12 steps. The cue that meant walk 4 steps forward now means walk 12 steps forward. The same procedure can be repeated to further build duration.

Solid Units Help Building Duration Exponentially

Most trainers build duration linearly. Three seconds. Then four seconds. Then five seconds. Then six seconds. Each step is a unit and the trainer adds on one step each time. What Kay is suggesting here is a method for building duration exponentially. The trainer can combine three units where each unit is 4 steps to get a new unit of 12 steps. Then, 3 units (each of 12 steps) can be combined to get a new unit of 36 steps. Rather than having to add one step or second at a time, the trainer can create and then combine larger and larger units.

The key to this lesson is to build a solid base unit of behavior before you start building duration. Many trainers attempt to build duration before they have a small, solid unit of behavior on cue. This can lead to frustration and failure no matter what method you use for building duration. The idea behind this procedure is that the cue is placed so that it reinforces the last unit of behavior and initiates the next unit of behavior. Good timing is key! If the trainer cues too late, she could get staggered, interrupted units of behavior. We discussed how this procedure could be used for increasing duration when teaching a horse to stand on a mat, lift a leg, walk around a cone circle, or practice the why would you leave me exercise.

One interesting thing that it would be worth it for clicker trainers to explore is how to use this procedure to get duration, versus how to use this procedure to enhance or improve a behavior. For instance, several participants used this exercise while riding to work on improving their walk. Rather than duration, both women played with using the recuing procedure to improve the quality of the horse’s walk. The rider would wait for a nice, forward walk. Recuing while walking resulted in an even more balanced, engaged walk.

This procedure is something I’ve been thinking a lot about and something I think is definitely worth exploring. I am still not sure which situations or under what conditions this procedure would be most useful. People have been discussing this recueing procedure recently on Alexandra Kurland’s yahoo group, as well as several other online clicker training groups. If you play around with these ideas in your own training, please let me know how it goes! I think there are many variations and procedures for building duration, many which have not been systematically explored.

Nagging, KGS, and Concept Learning

In several online clicker training discussions, several people have asked questions about whether the horse would interpret this procedure as nagging. From what I’ve seen and from talking to other people, this is not the case. However, if timing was poor and the trainer was recuing as the behavior was starting to deteriorate, this could become nagging or could reinforce the deterioration of behavior.

Also, several people have asked how this compares to what some clicker trainers call a keep going signal (KGS). In my opinion, this procedure is completely different from a KGS. A KGS only tells the animal to keep doing a behavior. With this procedure, the cue tells the animal to start a known unit of behavior and acts as a reinforcer for a previous unit of behavior.

One idea we discussed briefly that related to the recuing procedure was concept learning. Once the horse or other animal has gone through this process several times, the animal begins to learn that this is a new concept or method for building duration. Theoretically, once the animal understands this process, you should be able to build duration very fast.

If a trainer always builds duration in the same way, one step at a time, trying something like this could definitely throw the animal off, creating confusion and frustration. The trainer must teach the animal that this is a new way to build behavior.

I’ve recently been watching through Alexandra’s loopy training DVD — one thing she discusses is concepts we teach our horses. One concept that is good to teach your horse is that the rules of the game can change. This does have to be taught to the horse. With clicker training, many horses quickly learn the rules of the game. The horse knows how to make you click. Because of this, it can be very frustrating for the horse if you change the rules in situations where the horse doesn’t know that the rules can change.

In what kinds of situations do we need to teach the horse that the rules can change? This depends on the horse. Some horses learn targeting and then seem to automatically figure out that they can follow a target up, down, side to side, and across the arena. With other horses, the horse might not understand that he can walk and touch a target at the same time or that targeting can happen in lots of directions. The clicker trainer must use her shaping skills to explain each of the variations to the horse.

If your horse isn’t progressing or seems confused or frustrated, look at your shaping plan. Try and see if can break things down or explain things better so the horse can successfully figure out the rules and concepts you are trying to communicate to him. When clicker training, we need to break behavior down and find small, stable units or loops of behavior. Then we can build these units in a structured, sequential manner so that the horse does not get flustered or frustrated.

What Do Your Cues Mean to Your Horse?

While training, a trainer is constantly giving the horse signals and information, many times without even realizing it. Horses have great observation skills and they quickly learn our patterns and routines. One thing that Alexandra told us at the clinic is that we should constantly be asking our horse “What are your cues?” During clicker training, a trainer should learn to be a careful observer and should take note of how her horse reacts to everything she does.

You might think that your horse understands what a certain cue means. However, if you ask the horse and then observe, the horse will tell you what he thinks each cue means. What he thinks might or might not agree with what you thought you trained. Or, more subtly, the horse could think that the cue means one thing in one context but a different thing in another situation.

Early on the first day of the clinic, one participant experimented with Alexandra’s The Grown Ups are Talking exercise with her horse. She wanted her horse to stand still and relaxed on a mat while she moved around the horse. The horse clearly told her that if she moved in certain ways, she was inadvertently cuing certain behaviors. For example, if she stood straight with her hips still, this was a cue for the horse to do a behavior Alexandra calls the “pose.”

Now, it’s not necessarily bad for your horse to formulate his own cues. You can take these cues and use them. Or, you can take this information and use it as the starting point to get where you want to go. In any case, carefully observing how your horse responds to cues gives you important information that can be used to improve your training.

Cues, Consistency, and Communication

On the second day of the clinic we played around some with human horses. I talked about this more in detail in my first post about the clinic, as this really helped explain Alexandra Kurland’s Hip Shoulder Shoulder (HSS) exercise to me. At one point, I was being the “horse” for one of the other clinic participants. We practiced some jaw flexions and then were doing some very nice HSS in the clinic host’s kitchen.

Part way through, she asked me to change directions. Then, she started cueing me again by sliding her hand down the lead rope. I starting moving forward around her again. At least, that’s what I thought she wanted. What she really actually wanted was to start again with jaw flexions on that side, like we had started on the other side. But, at first, her cues weren’t clear to me.

How many times does this happen with our horses? We ask for one behavior and get another instead. The natural reaction for many traditional trainers is to blame the horse and say the horse is unintelligent or just not paying attention. Clicker training teaches a different mindset. If the horse understood what we were asking, he’d be doing it!

My trainer had to break things way down and go back to just giving me clicks and “treats” for standing still. Then, I understood it was something different that she wanted and she was able to go back to asking for jaw flexions on the new side. If the horse isn’t doing what you want, change your own behavior. Find a way to break down the behavior or find a new way to ask for the behavior so that you can communicate more clearly with your horse.

It’s really important to pay attention to the signals you are giving your horses when training a behavior. A trainer must be consistent when building a loop so that the unit is repeatable and can be used later. Start with small loops and don’t be greedy. Sometimes, it’s really easy to want to jump ahead and work on the next step before the horse is ready. However, if the trainer has not been consistent or the loop contains unwanted behaviors, the trainer can get in trouble when moving on because there will be too much extra behavior or variability in behavior. Creating tight loops at the beginning when training a new behavior will give you a solid foundation to build on later.

One really important thing that Alexandra said was “when the handler becomes consistent, the horse will too.” There’s a lot to that statement, so I encourage you to think about that statement. Think about a time you were working with an animal and the animal’s behavior seemed erratic and unpredictable. Are you sure your behavior was consistent and precise while working with that animal? So many times, people don’t notice how their behavior is changing and varying. The trainer might not realize it, but her behavior might look very unpredictable to the horse!

Cues are important. They are your keys to communicating with your horse. Clicker trainers can use cues in clever ways, such as using cues to reinforce other behaviors or to build duration. As clicker trainers, we must be precise and clear when building cues and attaching them to behavior. If your animal isn’t responding to your cues, don’t blame the animal. Instead, take a chance to reevaluate your training plan, including what cues you are purposefully (and accidentally) giving to the horse and what these cues mean to the horse.

Check back on Saturday (March 3) for part three of my notes!

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  • Lottie Eriksson

    Great post, thank you so much for sharing Mary! 

    • You are very welcome, Lottie. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.


  • Radal16

    Thank you! I had such a hard time following this concept through the listserve but this post helped me make sense out of the re-cue. 

    • Thanks for the comment. I'm glad the post helped make the re-cuing stuff make more sense to you.

      It was easier at the clinic, because Alexandra drew out some nice little diagrams for us. Some of this stuff is a bit challenging to put into words.
      I'm interested to play around with this concept. Theoretically, it makes sense to me and I've talked to others who have used it successfully. But, I'd like to play around with how it works and what makes it work. Will probably use one of my rats, as they are easier to do lots of sessions with throughout the week.

      If I play around with this concept, I will definitely report back.



  • Joy

    So much good information! I wish I could have attended the clinic. Thank you for attending and sharing what you learned.