Kathy Sdao Seminar Recap: A breakdown of “What a Cue can do – Improve your I-cue”

Unfortunately I was not able to wrap this up last year but as promised here is a run down of the seminar on day 2 (see Poisoned Cues for seminar day 1 in Nov 2012 recap below).  If you are a training junkie as I am,  you will find the elements of this seminar most useful since Kathy is very approachable and animated.  More in depth information can be found at Clicker Expo which invites Kathy Sdao as a guest from time to time.

Kathy’s workshop kept us busy with several exercises on cue discrimination and control. There were several hands on sessions with collaborative teams. (A good beginning foundation in clicker training is recommended for anyone who wishes to participate in a working spot.)

The discussions began with reviewing the qualities of a good cue. “Cues are distinctive, consistent, salient, simple (make sure you know exactly what the cue is one intends to use), and precious”.  By precious she means that we should be careful with our cues and use them wisely. Don’t present a cue unless you are “willing to bet money that the dog will do the behavior”.

1. One activity started off with a cue discrimination exercise.  She had each dog owner write down 5 behaviors their dog had on cue. Team members shuffled cards with 5 behaviors each dog owner had listed they felt their dog solidly knew, as well as a list of 10 more behaviors. Then individuals broke into smaller groups to test how the dog was able to respond in the new environment to handler cues as the flash card was presented.

This was an interesting exercise as all individuals in our break out area where able to participate in some capacity. I noticed that it took some of the dogs some time to get focused on their tasks and respond reliably to the cues they knew in such a busy place.  Each team was given a data collection sheet to record how many times a dog offered specific behaviors and what the handler used for “asking/cueing”.  The owner was to only ask once as this exercise was not about getting the behaviors correct, but about seeing how the dogs responded to the cues of its handler. In our circle the response rate was 4 out of 5, which is pretty high in dogs reading humans, although humans were inconsistent with their movements at times, more than likely unaware of unintended random signals added to cue requests.

Kathy recommended that dog trainers do discrimination exercises like these on a regular basis to keep the dogs sharp. I think it also comes in handy to make sure that human requests of cues are not getting sloppy.

When Kathy asked for feedback on how the sessions went, a number of handlers reported that they were surprised about what the dogs really knew but also surprised where the dogs failed and what they themselves where doing with their body (forward leans, back leans, thumbs up, head tilts, or elbows out).  The environment was very active and distracting so kudos to all teams that participated.

2.  For the second cue discrimination exercise, Kathy explained how to test to see if you and your dog agreed on the correct cue for any given behavior. She calls this the “prove it” game.  The idea is to vary the cue slightly (verbal exercise) and see if the dog still responds. So if you wanted to test the cue “sit,” you might ask the dog to “hit,” “skip” “upsit,” “mit” or some other variation on “sit” sounding label. Observers and owners were to ask themselves, is the dog sitting for any one syllable in a word that starts with “s”? How about any word that ends in -it? If you are using body language cues, you could test your hand gestures by changing some details. Ideas for this included standing on a chair, using the other hand, holding your hand at a different height, making handler motions bigger or smaller, wearing sunglasses, wearing a glove, kneeling and so on.  Kathy provided a handout with suggestions for ways to test cues.  (One thing for sure is most humans emote more than expected, and dogs tend to hear the first or last syllables of a cue often ignoring the in-between sound.)

Before trying this exercise, Kathy reminded individuals that they must decide ahead of time how they wanted the dog to respond to any given cue. She emphasized the importance of visualizing what you want out of the session before you ask your dog to complete the tasks. Avoid babbling/chatter and really think about what you will ask.  Do you want your dog to sit when you say “sat?” Do you want your dog to respond to hand gestures with both hands or just one?  It is important that the dog had the possibility of earning a click or yes marker by doing the behavior, or by not doing the behavior, depending upon what the owner has decided. Again, Kathy asked people to cue their dogs for behaviors in random order so that the dog was not influenced by recent reinforcement for any one behavior or pairing similar behaviors.

What a mind blowing exercise to reinforce/reward a dog for not doing a behavior, very counter intuitive at least for me. This method is used for service dogs. Wow, certainly helpful to reinforce decisions to say “no way” and allow the dog opportunity for  judgement calls in thinking when a situation is dangerous to the handler.

Great sessions with lots of good feedback! People were very creative with coming up with variations on cues for the prove it game.

Kathy also makes the distinction between cues and commands. In her view, commands have a component of “do it or else” whereas “cues are indicators that an opportunity for reinforcement is available for a particular behavior”, and it’s ok in some cases if the dog says no because most likely there is a valid reason. Give the dog the benefit of the doubt, usually it is the human that is not clear. Therefore a mindset of “cueing” is preferred over “command” training as part of allowing dogs to make appropriate choices accurately.

A little more detail about the red light green light examples she mentions during discussions:  To help people understand the second exercise, Kathy compares “cues ” to a driver waiting at a red light. She cites reasons why an individual might not go/take the cue  (i.e. go) even if the light turned green.  Some reasons are:  you can’t see the signal, signal was brief and you sneezed or blinked, didn’t recognize signal because it was different somehow (flashing green), distracted by another sight or sound, another overriding signal prevented you (e.g. siren), another car is in your way (inhibition),  unsafe (someone ran a red light), ran out of gas/broke down, and new criterion (standard car stalled on hill).

Again, Kathy’s point is that there are lots of reasons a dog might not respond when presented with a known cue and we need to recognize and troubleshoot why, instead of assuming the dog chose to ignore it “aka blow you off”…. The dog is not being stubborn..Avoid frustration in working with your dog and look to providing more clarity in cueing situation.

Also a final take away, the value of reinforcer/reward can change so it is useful to have several types of reinforcers available to give the trainer a choice of what to use in any given “cueing” situation and strengthen a chain of behaviors.   I believe this is consistent with her work with Ken Ramirez who is an advocate of well timed cues as well.

In any case, I especially appreciated the diagrams of forward and back behavior chaining. I still have some fuzz grey areas in regard to the sequencing but I will iron that out as I move along in training with my dogs.  ~ Happy training everyone