I believe the primary reason so many trainers have difficulty creating effective verbal cues is a lack of understanding. How to place behaviors on cue is the most misunderstood and misapplied process in training. And when done incorrectly or incompletely, the dog’s response to a verbal cue can be inconsistent at best, or completely unpredictable at worst.
Whether you’re teaching a behavior using lure-reward methods with hand signals as an intermediate step or you’re shaping with a clicker, if your dog is offering multiple behaviors in a frenzied attempt to earn the treat, then you don’t have that behavior on cue. Successfully placing behaviors on cue requires the application of a prescribed process. And, until you have behaviors on cue, enjoying freestyle, Rally-FrEe or really any sports with your dog, will be very frustrating for you both.
So, read on to learn an effective and efficient step-by-step process that will give you reliable responses to your cues and take your training to the next level.
Get a Cue
Easy Steps to Placing Behaviors on Verbal Cue
It is very common for handlers to struggle with getting behaviors on cue. You might be having this problem and not even realize it. If you’ve been avoiding using shaping or the clicker as a primary training tool and it seems like your dog isn’t listening, it’s probably because you struggle to get behaviors on cue. Well, fear no more, friends, the following steps will give you confidence and get results!
The process varies slightly depending on how you trained the behavior. So, find your training method in the following headings, then follow the steps to provide your dog with a clear understanding of the meaning of your verbal cue. Yes, it’s as easy as that!
Placing Behaviors on Cue
Timing is everything. Wait until the dog understands how to perform the behavior correctly before adding the verbal cue. Adding the cue too early in the training process can cause your dog to perform a partial or incomplete behavior when cued. It also muddies the process as your dog is likely to include errors that are a part of learning in his comprehension of the verbal cue.
Think of the handler who repeats, “heel, heel, heel” as their dog lags behind. They think they’re encouraging the dog to heel correctly. Actually, the dog is learning to associate the word “heel” with lagging!
Yes, They Can! Once you can answer all three of these questions affirmatively, it’s time to start putting a behavior on cue*:
- Is the behavior predictable? If you’d make a bet that your dog will offer the complete behavior, then it’s time to insert your verbal cue.
- Are the primary and essential parts present? It doesn’t have to be perfect. Criteria like duration and distance can be added later. But, once the parts are all there, it’s time to add the verbal cue.
- Does the dog appear confident while executing the behavior? If he initiates the behavior without delaying or throwing out other behaviors, it’s time to add the verbal cue.
* If you’re using gates, platforms or other training props, you’ll want to add your verbal cue before beginning the process of removing the props.
Here’s an example of Phee learning the verbal cue to get on her cot.
Steps to Placing Shaped Behaviors on Verbal Cue
- Set Up. Arrange the environment so the dog is likely to offer the behavior. Mark and reward the offered behavior a few times.
- Observe. Once predictable insert your verbal cue, just before the offered behavior. Mark and reward correct responses.
- Delay. After several repetitions of verbal cue followed by behavior, hold off on providing the verbal cue for a count of 1-1-thousand after your dog finishes the reward. If your dog performs the behavior without the verbal cue, do not mark and reward. Re-start, and right away provide the cue and mark and reward behavior.
- Test. Alternate/vary between delaying and providing the cue – always provide the cue more frequently than no cue. To prevent frustration during this step and to help the dog understand that waiting for the cue is a good thing, also give treats prior to giving the cue. This will add value to waiting for the next cue. He is waiting for either, the next treat, or the cue.Watch for understanding in the form of a “false start.” If your dog begins doing the behavior before he hears the cue, but catches himself, reward, then give the cue right after the false start, and mark and reward the completed behavior. This shows he’s getting it!
In this video you can see how I give Phee several treats in a row before giving the cue.
This helps her to wait for the cue without making errors and becoming frustrated.
Placing Lured Behaviors on Cue:
Once you’ve transferred your active food lure to a hand cue or signal and your dog is consistently responding to the hand cue, you can start to transfer to a verbal cue.
The protocol of transferring to a verbal cue can be spelled out in one sentence:
New cue followed by known cue or Verbal cue followed by hand/physical cue.
Steps to Placing Lured Behaviors on Verbal Cue
Choose a recently trained behavior, not yet on verbal cue, but predictable on a hand signal.
1. Known Cue. Give the hand signal to ensure it is meaningful and results in the completed behavior. Mark and reward.
2. New Cue Followed by Known Cue. Give your verbal cue (new), pause half a second, then give your hand signal. Mark and reward completed behavior. Repeat several times.
3. Light Bulb. After several reps, you should start to see the dog initiate or start the behavior before the hand signal. Mark and reward initiating the behavior – don’t wait for the full behavior to C/T. The criteria for your marker is starting the behavior on the verbal cue. Marking will likely cause the dog to end the behavior. That’s okay! He met criteria!
4. Test. Ping Pong between
– giving the verbal cue and pausing a half-second (about the length of a quick breath), then giving the hand signal and
– giving the verbal cue, slightly longer pause (one second or saying: one-one thousand) to give him the opportunity to be marked for initiating the behavior.
5. That’s It! Raise criteria to the full behavior without the aid of the hand cue.
6. Troubleshooting. This process shouldn’t take more than 3-4 sessions to complete. If it’s taking longer, check to make sure you’re not overlapping your verbal cue with your hand signal. Look for this on video. Often you might think you’re separating them, but the video will tell a different story.
Also check to make sure you aren’t trying to help the dog by giving the hand signal too soon. Doing this later in the process teaches them to wait for the hand signal rather than initiating the behavior.
Here is Phee learning the verbal cue for Sit.
By the way, the process is the same for more complex behaviors. Knowing how to apply the protocol to simple behaviors will give you the experience to apply them to more complex behaviors.