When an Old Behavior Needs a New Cue

If your dog’s “not listening,” an old cue might be part of the problem. Sometimes an old behavior needs a brand-new command. The Dog Trainer on why and how to change your dog’s old cues.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #190

When an Old Behavior Needs a New Cue

by  Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA 

So, you say “Zippy, come!,” and Zippy comes. Why would you want to start saying “Here, Zip!” or “Zippy, by me!” or, for that matter, “Zippy, hop to!”? You probably don’t – if Zippy does, in fact, show up in front of you promptly when you ask him to come. There might be a few different reasons, but today, I’ll discuss two that should lead you to change the cue.

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Reason #1: Your Cue Is Meaningless

One, the cue you’re using now may have no significance to your dog – that is, she doesn’t connect the sound you’re making with any particular behavior that you might want from her. Or, actually, with anything much at all. The technical name for this problem is “learned irrelevance,” which sums it up pretty well. Learned irrelevance rears its ugly head when we repeatedly use a cue and our dog doesn’t respond.

Before you get mad at your dog for ignoring you, though, go look in the mirror! Because learned irrelevance is a sign that you’ve made a mistake in your training.  

It’s easier to teach a new cue from scratch than to make an irrelevant old cue mean anything to your dog.

How Dogs Learn That a Cue Is Irrelevant

This often happens with coming when called – that’s why it’s the example I started with. For a dog to reliably come when you call her away from a rabbit or some other fascinating attractor is a high-level skill. You might compare it with graduate school for a human student. If your canine student has only practiced coming when called in your fenced backyard, and only when she’s already run all the rabbits off the premises that day, then, I hate to break it to you, but she’s barely out of kindergarten. If she doesn’t have a long, well-practiced history of coming to you in the face of gradually more enticing distractions, your cry of “Come, Dogalini!” will float away into the air as though nothing had happened. The more often Dogalini hears that cue and doesn’t associate it with her own behavior of coming to you (and getting a reward for doing so), the less significant it is to her. And an important feature of training is that it’s very hard to restore significance once you lose it. When learned irrelevance is at work, your best bet is to teach a new cue from scratch.

Learned Irrelevance and Other Cues

Learned irrelevance can happen with any cue, of course. People often jump the gun in teaching dogs to “Leave it” and “Drop it” – especially when “it” is food or a favorite toy. A common mistake is to assume that these cues work by means of belligerence. You’ll hear people say “Drop it” in a super-harsh tone, for instance; the first couple of times, this startles the dog, she drops the chicken bone or whatever, and the person thinks he has his training mojo on. If he then rewards the dog for dropping the bone, the training might even sort of work. But usually what happens is that after a few rounds, the dog gets over being startled, the person resorts to shouting, and the dog, to anthopomorphize completely, figures her guardian just gets like that when there’s a bone around, so she keeps on chewing. Avoid the Training Method of Failed Belligerence and instead work step by step from easy to difficult, the way you would with any other behavior you wanted to teach.

See also: Teaching Your Dog to ‘Leave It’

Reason #2: Your Cue Is “Poisoned”

So that’s reason #1 for changing a cue. Reason #2 is related: Your old cue is “poisoned.”  “Dogalini, come!” is a good example once again. We call a cue poisoned when a dog has learned to perceive it as a threat. Suppose your dog dislikes baths; you call her, she comes to you happily, and oh, noes! The upshot is a bath. Or a nail clipping. Or a scolding because she didn’t move as fast as you wanted. Let this happen a couple of times and I promise you, you will see her looking a lot less enthusiastic about coming when you call her.  As with learned irrelevance, the best fix here is to teach the behavior all over again, from scratch, but with a different cue. It’s easy to create a positive, happy, enthusiastic association to a brand-new cue. It’s tough slogging to undo an unpleasant association that already exists.

See also: Counterconditioning

How to Change a Cue

If learned irrelevance or poisoning is the problem, the only way out is to teach from scratch, using a brand-new cue. But you might want to change a cue for random other reasons – maybe you suddenly realize that your dog’s name plus some particular cue sounds like one of those grade-school jokes about “I. P. Daly.” Or you want your dog’s name plus some particular cue to sound like a grade-school joke. I’m not here to judge!

Here’s what to do. Suppose your dog’s name is Flash and you’ve taught her to stop on the cue “Flash, stop.” One day inspiration strikes: That cue could be “Flash, freeze.” You geek out with joy and get to work. Say “Flash, freeze … Flash, stop,” and then reward her for stopping. Your new cue predicts your old cue, and the old cue of course tells Flash that if she stops she’ll get a treat. Repeat a couple of dozen times in a few different places, then give your new cue, “Flash, freeze,” by itself. Odds are, Flash will … freeze. Reward her and congratulate yourself. If she doesn’t freeze, practice some more with both cues and then try again.

Remember, this method works for well-learned, well-rewarded cues – those poisoned or irrelevant ones will just mess up the new cue as well unless you start training from scratch.

That’s all for this week. I’m The Dog Trainer on Facebook, and you can also write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I usually can’t reply personally, but check out past articles – I might already have answered your question. Thanks for reading!

Confused Dog image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).