Tricks Contest: Adding a Cue

I’ve heard from some of you who are working on your tricks and I am looking forward to seeing the videos! Remember, you need no experience to enter the contest. This could be the very first trick you’ve taught a dog, and yes, it could win the Big Tricks Contest.

Time to talk about choosing and adding a cue. There are those of us who think that the cue really makes the trick. The right cue can make a trick quite funny or so much cuter. One of my dogs crosses one paw over the other, and her cue is “Pose.” If you’ve taught your dog to give you his paw, there is something so much more creative and appealing about cuing it with “gimme five” rather than just saying “paw.” The dog in this photo is doing “night-night” with his little friend, Flat Stanley. I had a client whose dogs both stood on their hind legs and rested their front paws on the wall on cue. If the cue had been “touch” or “wall” that would have been fine. But the trick was hilarious, because the cue was their owner taking the stance of a police officer and saying, “Everybody: up against the wall!”

Your cue does not have to be verbal, it could be a hand signal. One of my dogs barks on the cue of me holding my hand up to my ear as though I’m having trouble hearing him. If I place my index finger over my lips, he whispers (moves his mouth but no sound comes out). You have a built-in hand signal if you have used luring to teach your trick.  Should you want to make it into a more subtle arm or hand movement, just make the movement a touch smaller each time you practice. A giant, sweeping arm movement for “spin” can turn into an impressive flick of the finger. (Hopefully you eliminated the food lure soon into the training, which will give you the flexibility to modify the hand signal).

If you’re using capturing to teach your trick, the cue is built in from the beginning. If you are getting an 80% (or better) response rate on your trick with a hand signal (luring) or with waiting for the dog to offer it (shaping), you are ready to add your verbal cue.  If you’re using shaping, just start saying the verbal cue immediately (within 2 seconds) before the dog is about to offer the action (since you are at least 80% reliability the chances are good you’ll be able to time this just right). No longer reward the dog if you don’t say the cue. To withhold a treat may be difficult for you after all your effort, but it is worth it at this stage, because it will really make the dog attuned to and understand the cue and what it means he should do.

It’s good to get in the habit of having a cue ready to use even before you’ve started training a trick. The reason is that the dog may progress much more quickly than you had anticipated. While you really can’t add the cue too late, it will make your training sharper and his understanding of all his cued behaviors better if they have cues early on in the process. To test his understanding and strengthen his performance, try cuing the trick in different rooms of your house. Try cuing the trick standing sideways (unless facing him is part of the cue!), or sitting cross-legged on the floor. If he has trouble, cue it normally a few times and reward, and then try again at not quite so sharp and angle or just kneeling on the floor to help him out.

As you finish up your trick, let me know if you have any questions about how to fade signals, add cues, eliminate treats, or anything else about the process. Happy training!

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