Intelligent Refusal


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?”


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