Whole Dog Journal's Blog July 11, 2011

Intelligent Refusal

Posted at 03:32PM - Comments: (11)

I’ve been having a nice dialogue with a reader who objected to my promotion of the word “cue” over “command.” He made some good points – but something Otto did the other day gave me ammunition for one more point in support of why I prefer “cue.”

Copying their mama, the last two of my foster kittens (now MY kittens) have developed a classic behavioral response to Otto (and every dog, to be fair to kind, patient Otto): they puff up, spit, growl, and flatten their ears every time they notice him in the room. Frankly, they are often so occupied with play that sometimes this “noticing” happens when they actually run into his sleeping body, but whatever.  I keep praising and rewarding Otto for his calm, gentle behavior around them, and for turning instantly away from them any time he starts looking too interested in joining their chasing games.

The other day, as a reward, I initiated a game with Otto and his current favorite toy: bunny-shaped stuffed animal with a squeaker inside. (It’s from Premier Pet Products, and it’s ingenious; the belly of the bunny contains a rubber cage that enables the squeaker to roll about, making its position unpredictable. Otto LOVES mouthing the bunny in search of the ever-elusive squeaker.) I said, “Where’s your toy?” This is the cue I use to ask Otto to go get a toy. Otto looked thoughtful about this for a moment (as he often does), and then I saw the light bulb go on (as it almost always does) and his expression brightened before he bounded out of my office to go find the bunny. I could see it; it was in the middle of the living room floor.  But just as he arrived at the toy, one of the kittens launched from out from under the couch, right onto the bunny (the kittens like it, too).

Okay, a dilemma. Otto was asked to do something; he also knows he’s not supposed to chase or harm the kittens. If he “obeyed” my “command” to get the toy, he’d surely get in trouble for being confrontational with the kitten. He had to use some judgment – and I want to develop and nurture that judgment. In the real world, I really don’t want a robot, who follows orders no matter what.

I can only imagine that service dogs are trained similarly. They must do what their owners ask, but sometimes, their owners ask them to do something they know is dangerous, like walk in front of a car that their blind and deaf owner doesn’t know is coming too fast. They have to understand that in some cases, a refusal is the right thing to do. In this case, the word “cue” really is more appropriate than “command.” I’d love to hear from service dog trainers about how they cultivate this trait, without creating a dog who “refuses” when it suits his needs, rather than his handler’s.

In this case, I’m proud that Otto knew to “disobey” me. He quickly stepped back from the spitting kitten, and looked at me, tail wagging, for further instructions. “Yes!” I applauded him, jumping up from my chair and skipping into the kitchen to get him something extra yummy from the fridge. “Good dog!” And when the coast was clear of kittens, he got another reward. “Otto! Where’s your toy?”

Comments (11)

The difference between "cue and command" isn't just a philosophical one, although that certainly is part of what matters greatly to some of us. I think the working world difference is about how a behavior is trained. If it is positively trained to a high degree of reliability and then has a verbal or physical signal put before it that is a cue. If the signal is given for something the dog doesn't know how to do and consequently has to be shown, lured or coerced into doing, that becomes a command "do it or else". If I were a perfect trainer every behavior my dog needs to know would be on cue. Unfortunately there are those times when I must compel a behavior for safety. That's my failing, not my dog's. Important to remember. And, by the way, it is possible to get competition obedience results with positive training(marker training) And it's way more fun.

Posted by: whodapuppy | July 13, 2011 11:05 AM    Report this comment

The difference between "cue and command" isn't just a philosophical one, although that certainly is part of what matters greatly to some of us. I think the working world difference is about how a behavior is trained. If it is positively trained to a high degree of reliability and then has a verbal or physical signal put before it that is a cue. If the signal is given for something the dog doesn't know how to do and consequently has to be shown, lured or coerced into doing, that becomes a command "do it or else". If I were a perfect trainer every behavior my dog needs to know would be on cue. Unfortunately there are those times when I must compel a behavior for safety. That's my failing, not my dog's. Important to remember. And, by the way, it is possible to get competition obedience results with positive training(marker training) And it's way more fun.

Posted by: whodapuppy | July 13, 2011 11:05 AM    Report this comment

To Unknown, re: "Teaching our dogs to "think" and use "judgement" rather than blindly following "commmands" is sooooo what I try to do with mine. OK, maybe I don't get competition obedience results BUT I have a relationship with may dogs that builds trust--they in me and me in them. They aren't perfect but neither am I and sometimes they are right when I am wrong! I don't want a "master/slave" relationship--I want companions."

As one who has completed an RE and CDX with my dog and is currently proofing Utility work with her, I have to say that this evaluation of competition obedience is misguided at best! My dog IS my companion first and foremost - and the fun we have in the ring together is certainly not "master/slave", but a partnership! We use both cues and commands, as both in their own way help our dogs understand what we are asking of them. Competition dogs need confidence, especially at the upper levels and that is certainly not something any "slave" I've ever heard of had.

Posted by: Patti R | July 12, 2011 4:38 PM    Report this comment

Hi Nancy, this is a fascinating discussion: I'm an English teacher who adores my two enormous malamute-shepherd mixes! Ordinarily I would say that 'cue' is an unspoken signal; but I agree with you that your question to Otto was not a command. And how brilliant of him (taking after his mom) to judge the situation and act accordingly!

Posted by: Dog Mom | July 12, 2011 3:20 PM    Report this comment

In the world of search and rescue dogs the handler uses a command to start the dog on a search. In this environment of training and real world searches, the last thing we want to do is "cue" the dog. To cue a dog in the SAR environment is not a good thing. I guess, like so many words in the english language, they mean different things to different people. At home I know my body language can be a cue for certain behavior.

Posted by: BARBARA A | July 12, 2011 2:00 PM    Report this comment

In this case I think cue is the better word but I think there are times when the correct word would be command. In the case of the fence incident in the last entry, I would say you were attempting to command the neighbor's dogs to leave. In another situation you might command your dog to stay or come or leave something harmful alone. I do not think that either term works for all situations.

We teach our dogs that certain words are commands and others are cues. "Come" is not to be disobeyed but "here" is more of a cue. Tone and body language play a large part in what is a cue and what is a command as well.

Posted by: Susan T | July 12, 2011 1:15 PM    Report this comment

It's clear that you have trained Otto excellently to be nice to the kittens. Now, is there any way to train the kittens to be nice to poor Otto?

Posted by: margeam | July 12, 2011 1:12 PM    Report this comment

This is great! Teaching our dogs to "think" and use "judgement" rather than blindly following "commmands" is sooooo what I try to do with mine. OK, maybe I don't get competition obedience results BUT I have a relationship with may dogs that builds trust--they in me and me in them. They aren't perfect but neither am I and sometimes they are right when I am wrong! I don't want a "master/slave" relationship--I want companions. Currently I have two rescue dogs with unknown prior histories so we have to feel our way along the path to mutual understanding--but we are getting there.
Nancy, thanks for all your insight and sharing your experiences.

Posted by: PJKutscher | July 12, 2011 12:54 PM    Report this comment

Command leaves out room for decision making/judgement which is what Otto used! Clearly, cue is the correct word here.

Posted by: Cindy G | July 12, 2011 12:12 PM    Report this comment

"I can only imagine that service dogs are trained similarly."

The best working Border Collies also demonstrate this ability to exercise discretion depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. Livestock can be totally unpredictable and by the time a handler's given a direction, the livestock may have decided to do something she or he didn't anticipate and it can be critical that the dog know when to disregard the cue and do what it needs to do to keep the animals under control.

It's sometime seen at sheepdog trials, but it's absolutely essential in normal workaday situations on the farm or range where the livestock's welfare and safety can depend on the dog's split second decision. It's truly a sight to behold a dog making it's own decisions and thinking through the task at hand.

I agree . . . I prefer "cue" to "command". I want a partner in my relationship with my dog, not an automaton.

Thanks for the thoughtful article.

Roxanne

Posted by: Gentlelake | July 12, 2011 12:06 PM    Report this comment

Nice example Nancy. I agree with you on the use of cue. Cue has evolved as the best term to use when describing what we use with more modern dog training. I imagine it evolved with shaping when we put a word or hand signal etc. on a finished behavior. We name a finished behavior so it is on cue not on command. Having grown up in the world of "command" I must continually check myself as I easily fall into calling cues, commands.

Posted by: JAN C R | July 12, 2011 12:04 PM    Report this comment

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