Conversations with cues

This post is part of my notes from a horse clicker training clinic with Alexandra Kurland that I attended in November 2014 in Arkansas. For more notes from this clinic, please visit my clinic notes page.

We spent one evening at the clinic talking all about cues. Of course, this subject is a pretty big topic, so it came up again and again throughout the weekend. This post collects some of the ideas from our discussions that made it into my notes.

Cues act as green lights. Cues act as signals that tell the animal that doing a certain behavior will result in reinforcement. However, cues are not the same as commands. If the animal doesn’t do the behavior or does a wrong behavior, nothing bad is going to happen. Trainers usually think of cues as words, hand signals, or other events that the trainer gives. However, it’s important to remember that anything, literally anything, can be a cue for the animal. A certain event, object in the environment, or even a specific place can become a cue for a particular behavior if this behavior in this context has been followed by reinforcement in the past (even if you were not planning for this thing to be a cue).

Horse clicker training - Stand on a matCues are often environmental. And good trainers purposefully incorporate this into their training. Inanimate objects, such as a target, a mat, or even a particular part of the arena can be trained as cues. For example, different mats could be cues for different types of behavior. Similarly, different targets can be used as cues for different varieties of targeting. One target can be a “following” object, meaning the horse follows the target as it moves forward, but doesn’t actually touch it. Another target could be a “catch up” object, meaning the horse is trained to follow the target and eventually reach it and touch it.

Some cues are out of your control. Interestingly, you may not even be able to detect or deliberately control all of the environmental signals that serve as cues for your animal. For example, Alexandra gave one example about sweat. Researchers have determined that human brains react differently when smelling sweat from someone who has been working out, as opposed to someone who is sweating out of fear. I’m sure there are things that our animals notice and respond to that we don’t even know about!

Cues can lead to conversations. Trainers aren’t the only ones giving cues. The animal can also give cues to the trainer. Once an animal has learned a behavior, the animal can potentially use that behavior to communicate back to the trainer. Alexandra told a lovely story of her cat sometimes using a trained behavior (sitting up) to tell Alexandra when he wanted a treat. During successful training, the trainer gives cues to ask the animal to do certain behaviors, but the animal’s behavior should also cue the trainer as to what the trainer should do next. What emerges as animal and trainer respond to each other’s cues and behavior is a conversation.

Old behaviors can get new cues. It is (fairly) easy to teach a new cue for a behavior that already has a cue. Trainers often do this using what they call the “new cue – old cue” procedure. First, you give a new cue, then pause, then give the old cue. When the animal does the behavior, click and treat. Over time, as the trainer repeats this procedure, the animal anticipates and begins to do the behavior for the new cue, before the second (old) cue is given. Here’s a video example of this procedure in action with a dog.

Alexandra gave an awesome example of using the “new cue – old cue” procedure to turn an unwanted behavior into a cue for a desirable behavior. She had a paint horse that she was training that would sometimes try to mug people for treats. The horse was just excited about clicker training and getting to see Alexandra, but it’s not safe to have a 1,000 lb. horse pushing into you and searching your pockets for treats, even if he only does the behavior occasionally.

Alexandra could have just taught the horse an alternative behavior, such as keeping his head forward. However, what if he still did the behavior occasionally during the training process? Many trainers would just train behind protected contact and ignore the unwanted behavior until the horse had learned not to mug the trainer. This works in many cases, but it can sometimes still be frustrating for some horses. With her knowledge about cues in mind, Alexandra came up with a slightly different solution for this horse.

Alexandra’s creative solution was to first teach the horse to lower his head by having him touch a target held near the ground. Once he had mastered this, she used the “new cue – old cue” procedure to teach several other cues for head lowering, including resting her hand behind his ears and also gentle pressure from the lead rope. At this point, the horse was figuring out that head lowering could have several different cues. Finally, she taught the horse that if she gently bumped into his nose, this was yet another cue to ask him to lower his head.

Later, she was working on the Grown-Ups Are Talking exercise with the horse, where the horse is supposed to stand with his head straight ahead. He forgot his manners at one point, turned his head, and bumped Alexandra with his nose. Then, rather than continuing to mug Alexandra for treats (as he would have done in the past), he immediately dropped his head to the ground! Mugging someone or bumping into someone was now a cue for head lowering.

I loved this example and thought it was a brilliant and creative use of cues. Alexandra was able to use the “new cue – old cue” procedure to turn an unwanted behavior (searching the trainer for treats) into a cue for a desirable behavior (head lowering). The more you play with cues, the more you’ll see their many uses and some of the subtle and complex ways that we can use them to initiate conversations with our animals.

Have you trained any creative or unusual cues?

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