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Poisoned Cues

There’s a thing I’m having to work on: recall. The cue “come”. The holy grail (for me at least) of dog training. I’ve trained hundreds of dogs to come when called. Maybe more than “hundreds”. I used to think I was pretty good at it. It seems like any time I think I’m good at a thing, the universe informs me that I have a lot more to learn. It’s a case of the cobbler’s children around here with my dogs. I HAVE to make more time to work with them. Especially on their recall.

So I was doing just that for the last two weeks or so when I realized how much WORK this was. We weren’t enjoying ourselves. We weren’t making progress. They have fantastic indoor recalls, good recall in public places where they think I’m the safe place, good recalls anywhere but at home actually. And the problem is that they know they can find much more reinforcing things…elsewhere while they’re at home. On the one hand, I’m glad they feel so secure. But mostly, I need to be able to get them into the car, or not spend twenty minutes retrieving them from the creek (and then another half an hour drying them and cleaning off the mud). We HAVE to have a recall.

We do have to have a recall. And the word in the house and in the yard is “come”. But they’re 100% certain that the “come” behavior, when not confined, isn’t reinforcing. When I say “come” in the house, I get excited, happy, tail-wagging dogs running to me and sliding into a sit. When I say “come” outside, I get a sad expression, a dog that ducks away from my hand and scrambles out of reach. So I’m changing the word I’ll use. There’s a concept called a “poisoned cue” which says that sometimes when you’ve made enough mistakes, when the behavior that you wanted associated with a cue is NOT the thing that becomes associated and that the cue is now associated with an unpleasant thing. In our case, “come” has turned into “play time is over, let’s go inside”. It’s my fault and I know this.

I also know that I can simply start over. I can choose a new word that has no negative connotation in their experience, attach it to a behavior (a hand touch from a distance) that will accomplish my goals, and make it all positive. I can remember that when I want to drag my dogs back in the house, I should never call them, and I should just go get them. I should follow my own advice. It’s really good advice.

Last night we started a new game in our evening training session. I hurried from one corner of the kennel to the next, going in zig zags, stopping erratically, and generally being very fun and playful. When the dogs got any distance at all, I’d yell “alleeoop!” and jump into a play invite. Unsurprisingly, the dogs would immediately pounce into reach. A quick collar touch while their noses touched my other hand, a verbal marker of “yes!”, and a high value reward. This morning we played “alleeoop” in the yard and had just as much fun! We’ll make this a thing we do daily, in all sorts of new places, always with a very high rate of reward. And in no time at all, I’ll have my pups running to catch me again without leashes or fences.

The next time your dog ducks and shies away when you ask him to do something that he “KNOWS” how to do, ask yourself if the cue has become poisoned. Is your dog avoiding performing because he’s stubborn? Or (much more likely) because there’s some part of the consequences of that cue that he finds aversive. If the cue is poisoned, remember that no one tells you which words you must use to get your dog to execute any particular behavior. Then get creative, find new words, and go have some fun with your dog!

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