The Poisoned Cue

Dog in training

Most dog trainers are generally on board when it comes to teaching their dog with reward-based training. We all like to be nice to our dogs and we all like happy, willing partners, so it just seems like a good idea to use cookies and games when teaching our dogs new things.

But What Do You Do When Your Dog Doesn’t Do What You Ask?

In the event that you ask your dog to come and he simply shrugs you off and continues doing his own thing, is it time to change stride and start correcting poor choices?

It may seem that giving cookies for right responses and verbal or physical reprimands for wrong responses is a good idea and this is what many people call ‘balanced training’. But while it seems like good sense, there are very real and unwanted byproducts of using any type of reprimands.

Making A Deal

If you teach your dog with cookies, you’ve established a pact with your dog:

“You do what I ask and I’ll give you something yummie”. 

It’s a good deal, so the dog’s happy, you’re happy and everything goes well.

The dog learns over time that every time you make a request of him, it’s a promise of good things to come. He becomes very motivated to want to comply with your wishes because every request is an opportunity to earn a reward.

In essence, your cues actually become rewards.

Breaking The Deal

Once you decide to give corrections for wrong responses, there’s a shift in your dog’s perception of the cues.

Once he’s corrected for a wrong response, your cues are now threats as well as promises. When this happens, your cues no longer serve as rewards so your dog will have a lot less emotional attachment to them and therefore a lot less motivation to comply.

Your Words

If in training, come means an invitation to come and get some cookies and play some games, your dog would really look forward to hearing the word come. He would also be motivated to actually come because he knows there’s a chance that complying could earn him rewards.

Once you follow up come with a correction however, the dog will become suspicious of the cue. He’ll no longer feel that happy anticipation when he hears the word, because it’s no longer a good predictor of only happy things for dogs.

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The Results . . .

You’ll see are slower responses, fear of responding, or calming signals such as sniffing the ground or looking away. The dog will lose interest and motivation because he’ll understandably want to avoid any chance of correction or punishment.

Even if you continue to reward right responses, you’ll see this shift in motivation. This is because your requests are no longer safe for your dog.

This is called poisoning the cue.

Your cues are now threats as well as promises.

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