A few thoughts about poisoned cues

This post is part of my notes from the 2017 ClickerExpo conferences. You can find more of my ClickerExpo notes on the Conference notes page.

ClickerExpo - Train betterAt the Portland ClickerExpo and again at the Stamford ClickerExpo I attended Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz’s lecture on poisoned cues.

You may be asking: Why attend the same lecture twice? Poisoned cues are an important concept, and also a topic that I find quite interesting. For important concepts, I find it can be quite helpful to hear again and again about that topic. Every time, I learn something new or think about the topic in a slightly different way.

Later on, I’d like to write a in-depth article about poisoned cues. For now, here is a short introduction to poisoned cues and then just a few thoughts that have been on my mind related to poisoned cues.

If you want to learn more about poisoned cues, I would suggest checking out the DVD that Dr. Jesús Rosales-Ruiz and Alexandra Kurland produced several years ago on the subject.

What is a poisoned cue?

A poisoned cue is a discriminative stimulus (a cue) that is taught using both positive reinforcement and corrections. Usually once the behavior is well learned, the trainer no longer uses corrections and can maintain the behavior using just positive reinforcement.

The trainer may justify using a few corrections during teaching because she thinks it helps the animal learn faster or because she thinks it helps explain to the animal what he shouldn’t be doing. The trainer also may feel more comfortable using corrections because she only intends to use them during teaching – they won’t be used when the behavior is fully trained.

For example, perhaps a trainer teaches leash walking by giving the dog treats for staying close by her side in the correct heeling position. However, if the dog gets too far ahead, the trainer also gives a pop on the leash, to correct the pulling and get the dog back into position.

Or, imagine teaching a horse to load into a trailer. The trainer gives the horse a small piece of carrot every time the horse takes a few steps forward. However, if the horse balks and refuses to walk forward at any point, the trainer takes her whip and taps the horse’s hind end.

The problem with mixing positive reinforcement and corrections is that it can create some pretty detrimental side effects, including anxiety and uncertainty. This is because the animal is never completely sure if his behavior will be followed by reinforcement or a correction.

The importance of uncertainty

Here’s a simple example that you may be able to relate to. Imagine your boss says, “Could you come into my office, I need to tell you something….” If you have a really great boss, this may not pose any issues. However for many people, this may create quite a bit of dread and uncertainty.

The person starts quickly recalling everything he or she has done during the last few days. Is the meeting going to result in a stern lecture or encouraging praise? It’s this sense of uncertainty that can make poisoned cues incredibly aversive.

Even if the meeting does result in praise and positive feedback, sometimes the biggest emotional effect for the employee is still a sense of relief that he escaped a scolding.

The thing that makes poisoned cues really interesting is this element of uncertainty. If a behavior is always followed by a correction or some other sort of aversive stimulus, the animal expects it and tries to cope with it or figures out how to escape or avoid it.

With a poisoned cue, the behavior is often followed by reinforcement. When the frequency of reinforcement is high enough, the animal continues to perform the behavior and engage with the trainer because he wants to earn the reinforcement. However, he also has a sense of dread or anxiety, because he knows his behavior will occasionally not meet the trainer’s standard and will be followed by a correction.

What types of cues can be poisoned?

I often hear dog trainers talk about poisoned cues in terms of verbal cues, such as sit, down, stay, heel, etc. It’s often common for dogs or horses who were first trained traditionally to have verbal cues or hand signals that have been poisoned.

However, one really important concept that Dr. Rosales-Ruiz discussed in his lecture is that poisoned cues can be more than just spoken cues or hand signals that a trainer deliberately teaches as part of her training program.

Poisoned cues can also be particular objects, a person, a certain setting or environment, a context, or any other sort of environmental event that has become a cue for an animal.

For example, Dr. Rosales-Ruiz showed a video clip of a service dog in training whose vest had become a poisoned cue. The dog was happy and responsive during training when the vest was off. Then, when the vest was put on, the dog became distracted and inattentive.

In this case, the dog had not purposefully been exposed to a training program that used corrections. However, the dog had been taken to public settings that he was not quite ready for, and which he found quite overwhelming. So, the vest became a cue for the clicker training session that would follow, but the dog also learned that it often meant he would be taken into environments that he found concerning or unpleasant.

Animals are individuals

Cues can be poisoned in several different ways. One common way that cues become poisoned is when the trainer adds some sort of aversive or correction to a positive reinforcement training program. However, cues can also become poisoned if there are things in the training environment that the dog finds aversive, even if the trainer did not purposefully add these things, such as in the example above with the service dog in training.

Sometimes I’ll encounter animals that have cues that seem to be poisoned, yet the trainer or owner insists that she has only been using positive reinforcement. On closer inspection and after a detailed history and examination, sometimes we discover things the dog is fearful of or feels threatened by or otherwise just doesn’t like which have created a poisoned cue for the dog in a particular situation.

What’s important to remember here is that every animal is an individual. Just because you think an animal should be okay with something, doesn’t necessarily mean that will be the case. So, it’s important to pay close attention to the animal’s body language and what the animal is trying to communicate back to you during training.

What to do about poisoned cues

This topic should really be a whole other blog post. However, I think it is worth addressing it briefly. With a poisoned cue, the behavior itself isn’t ruined, just the cue. So, a good solution is often to identify the poisoned cue, then pick another cue that can work for the same behavior, and finally to retrain the behavior using the new cue.

Have you ever worked with an animal who had some poisoned cues?

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