Daily Cues

A small but elegant gate to a meadow path.

Not our actual gate. I wish we were this rural-England classy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our house is surrounded by a five-foot fence, and we drive through the gate each time we enter or exit.  The effort of stopping the car, getting out to open the gate, pulling through, getting out to close the gate, and then driving on might seem tiresome, but it’s become a part of our routine.

We always remind visitors to close the gate behind them. Today, however, our guest was leaving just a few minutes before we were departing ourselves, and so we said he could leave the gate open behind him. A few moments later, my husband and I got into the car and started down the drive.

We passed through the gate and kept going. I cleared my throat. “Um, husband, are you going to stop for the gate?”

“Oh!” He’d forgotten entirely about the gate!

That’s okay, I told him, adopting my Behavior Analyst voice. Clearly the cue to close the gate was not the open gate itself, but the preceding act of opening the gate. He had a very clearly defined behavior chain, but the cues weren’t the ones which might seem most obvious.

Sometimes we think behaviors should be obvious or routine or “built-in.” But the most reliable cued behavior in the world isn’t going to happen if we don’t perceive the expected cue. For example, I might expect my dog to sit automatically at a door, but the cue may actually be my expectant glance. If I don’t look down as I open the door, the dog could slip out the door, never having received the cue to sit and wait. It’s important to know what we’ve actually trained.

It occurs to me now that Kathy Sdao did an entire workshop on this topic at this year’s ClickerExpo*, testing cues and reasons why an animal might not respond to a cue. Great stuff.

What behaviors do you expect from your dog which might have different cues entirely?

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About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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  1. You are Perfectly Right. I recently NQ on the last leg of our CD because I saw but did not give enough credit to the missing cue before the command. A dog that has never not once broke a sit stay did when she was left sitting in a position she had never been asked to stay in before. (Her sitting position for us was a cue.) She was uncomfortable and I knew I should have changed the way she was sitting but thought this is Hannah she wouldn’t break even if I didn’t change her position… well this was a completely unroutine position and she stood to adjust herself. This was one example of a Cue I knew I missed… I can only imagine how many others we may not even notice.

  2. An applied behaviorist might describe it as being exquisitely controlled by environmental cues, but Sister Lucia just told us to always be prisoners of good habits, for if we didn’t we would surely be prisoners of the bad ones. Sometimes I marvel at how a stimulus I haven’t seen since those middle school days can still take hold of me, my thoughts, and my behavior.

    T’is much the same for the animals in our lives. Isn’t it?

  3. Great example Laura! Makes me think that the behavior your husband has on cue is actually “re-shut the gate” (i.e., return it to the shut position after opening it) rather than “shut the open gate.” This is, of course, just another way of saying what you said: he skipped doing the second half of the behavior chain because the cue for it (completion of the first half of the chain) was missing.

    And Steve, Sister Lucia? I didn’t know you’d been raised by nuns — like me. 😉

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