Beware of the Poisoned Dog Cue

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A cue becomes “poisoned” when the dog’s association with the cue is ambiguous – it’s sometimes associated with positive reinforcement, and sometimes associated with punishment. When the association is ambiguous, the dog becomes confused and doesn’t know what to expect. Poisoning your “Come!” cue is the best way to ensure that she’ll stop and weigh her choices, then take off after the bounding deer, rather than come galloping to you when you call.

A positively trained “Come” cue always “opens the door” to positive reinforcement. If the behavior does not occur, the only result is that no reinforcement occurs. When the behavior occurs, reinforcement is guaranteed. As soon as the dog understands what “Come” means, the cue itself becomes a positive reinforcer because of its consistent association with a high-value reward.

A recall trained by correction/punishment also creates an association in the dog’s mind – but the association is not positive. If the dog doesn’t come when called, or doesn’t do it quickly enough, the command leads to punishment such as a “leash pop” or verbal reprimand (often called a “correction”). The command is now a conditioned positive punisher (the dog’s behavior makes a bad thing happen) and/or negative reinforcer (the dog’s behavior makes a bad thing go away; the punishment stops when the dog finally comes). The dog works to avoid bad stuff rather than to get good stuff. The dog’s emotional response to the “Come” command is negative/avoidance, not positive.

Even if the behavior was initially trained with positive reinforcement, if a cue is followed by an aversive correction (leash pop, verbal reprimand) for incorrect behavior, the cue immediately loses its positive association and its value as a positive reinforcer. It is, at best, ambiguous. It no longer automatically triggers the positive emotions associated with conditioned positive reinforcers. This often occurs with trainers who use positive reinforcement to train a behavior, but then use “corrections” to “proof” the behavior – that is, once they believe the dog “knows” the behavior, they feel they are justified in using punishment if the dog doesn’t do it when asked. This, too, will quickly poison a cue.

Even if primary reinforcers, such as approval, toys, and treats are used during or after training, the “Come” cue is a threat as well as a promise. Compliance diminishes because behavior that might be punished tends to be avoided. The dog’s attitude often switches from attentive eagerness to reluctance and avoidance, frequently with manifestations of stress. Even though an appropriate behavioral response to the “Come” cue is still followed by reward, if failure is followed by punishment, the cue has become ambiguous in terms of predictable outcome. It is no longer “safe.” You have poisoned your recall cue.

“Come” is one of the cues that are most frequently poisoned by dog owners – if not THE most commonly poisoned cue. Owners often inadvertently poison the recall cue by following it with a consequence the dog perceives as undesirable, even though the owner isn’t intentionally punishing the dog. It can happen to anyone. Before I realized that coming into the house was aversive to our Corgi, I often called her to “Come!” and then took her inside. By the time I realized she was avoiding me when I said “Come,” it was too late – the damage to the cue had been done.

At least one study suggests that it’s easier to use a new cue than to rehabilitate a cue that’s been poisoned, as the poisoned cue will likely always carry a negative association. With that in mind, when I realized I had given her a negative association with the word “Come,” I changed her cue.

Now I use “Let’s go!” and make sure it’s frequently associated with fun stuff – even when we’re going into the house. On the way to the house we often play targeting games or “Chase the Cuz,” her all-time favorite toy. Sometimes I don’t call her, but go into the house without her. Because she hates being outside alone, she soon appears at the back door, waiting to be let in. I can get away with temporarily leaving her outside unattended because we live smack dab in the middle of our 80-acre farm, almost a half-mile from the road, and I know she won’t leave. Problem solved.

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