Does your dog understand the concept of responding to a cue?

Updated: Jan 3, 2019

What is a cue?

Sometimes referred to as a command, most cues are words or hand gestures that we use to communicate what behavior we want a dog to perform. Cues can also be audible sounds like a whistle, visual objects or contexts (reaching the curb means wait), scent (sit when you smell drugs), or even touch (wait when I grab your collar). Understanding the concept of a cue is fundamental to training; cues are the main means of communicating with your dog.


The power of positive cues

In your training, you want cues to anticipate good stuff. If you want to call your dog away from a squirrel, 'come' had better be associated with something pretty awesome. If not, the squirrel wins the popularity contest. Cues tell the dog that there's an opportunity to earn reinforcement. If your dog hasn't fully grasped a new cue, repeating it, speaking slower or louder probably won't help. Dogs don't understand english, but if you use a proven strategy to add a cue to a behavior you'll have much more success.


1. Get the behavior

We'll use the hand target behavior described in a previous post in this series as an example of how to first get your dog doing the behavior you want.

  • When your dog is reliably and confidently offering the behavior, he's ready to learn the cue.

  • In the hand touch example, this means that your dog should be able to touch your hand 10 times in a 1 minute training session (mark with a click or say 'yes' and treat each touch).

  • Studies show that adding a cue too soon slows down learning, so keep your lips zipped until your dog has the behavior part mastered.

2. Name the behavior

  • Say the cue as your dog is doing the behavior. Your goal is to say 'touch' a split second before he touches your hand.

  • Click or say 'yes' and treat, repeat 10 times.

  • Take a play break after each set of 10 repetitions.

3. Put the behavior on cue

  • Say the cue as the dog begins to move toward your hand.

  • Click or say 'yes' and treat, repeat 5 times.

  • Say the cue just before your dog begins to move towards your hand, or just as he's finished his last treat.

  • Click or say 'yes' and treat, repeat 5 times.

  • Wait for your dog to pause for a split second before giving the cue. Ignore uncued behavior, click and treat only cued behavior.

  • Practice giving the new cue in between known cues ('sit', 'touch', 'down', 'touch'...)

  • Try giving the cue at another time at random. Be prepared to go back a step if he's not sure.

Practice often

Adding a cue is a process. Please remember that if your dog doesn't respond to a new cue it's because he's still learning the cue, or he's not used to responding to the cue in a new location or context. If your dog is struggling, go back a steps in the process. This may mean going back to quiet clicking and treating until the dog is reliably performing the behavior again.


Below, Timber is learning a new cue "do the laundry". We're doing repetitions in between other well-known cues to ensure that she understands and waits for the cue.

Need help teaching foundation skills to your dog or puppy? Contact me, I'm here to help.

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Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner