Ten Things You Should Know About Cues
In the previous post I asked what are ten key concepts you would want a beginner to know about cues. I hope you have made your own list to compare with the one that I will be sharing over the next couple of weeks. I said I was going to treat them like Christmas presents under the tree. I’ll be sharing them with you one at a time. So Part 2 of this book is divided into ten sections, each with it’s own chapters. Each Section focuses on just one of these key elements.
So today’s “present” begins with Section 1.) Cues are not Commands
Section 1.) Cues are not Commands
Chapter 1: Asking Versus Telling
Cues and commands are not synonyms. A command has a do it or else threat behind it. For a dog it’s: sit or else. For a horse it’s trot – or else. There’s always that threat sitting behind the request. Think of all the riders who have discovered that their stuck-in-cement horse suddenly moves off with energy as soon as they pick up a crop.
“I don’t have to use it. All I have to do is carry it.” they will say. It’s easy to think you are being soft when a light tap is all you need, but from the horse’s perspective there is always the threat of something more painful backing up that tap.
The dictionary defines commands as:
“Authority over”, “control”: these words sound so jarring when used in conjunction with clicker training. No matter how you sugar coat them, commands don’t belong under the clicker training umbrella.
Cues are different. They are different in the way in which they are taught, and they are different in the way they are responded to.
The dictionary defines a cue as:
“A prompt or reminder”, and “a signal for action” is a good way to think of cues. This is a word that fits well into clicker training.
One of the best metaphors for cues comes from Karen Pryor, author of “Don’t Shoot the Dog” and “Reaching the Animal Mind”. A cue is a green light that tells the animal that it can now perform a given behavior and it is likely to be reinforced for it. Cues are taught via positive reinforcement. If an animal fails to respond to a cue, it isn’t punished. The handler will set up the scenario that leads to the cue so the animal can try again. If the animal continues to fail to respond, the worst that may happen is the handler puts the animal away while she goes off to have a proverbial cup of tea and a think.
This represents a huge paradigm shift for many animal handlers. If you have come to clicker training from a more traditional background, commands will be the norm for you. If you ask your horse to trot and he doesn’t, you will have been told: “Get after him. Make him do it! If you don’t, he won’t respect you. He’ll take advantage of you. You aren’t being a good leader. You need to show him who is boss.”
I’ll get people who are new to clicker training asking what they should do if a horse bites them.
“Keep yourself safe, but be non-reactive,” I tell them.
“No, no,” they respond. “He bit me. I need to do something.”
“Okay. Put him away and go have a cup of tea.”
I know that’s not what they expect to hear, but it is often the best advice. Go have a think away from your horse. You need to be in a non-reactive state of mind to come up with a plan that keeps you both safe while at the same time setting your horse up for success. You want a plan that minimizes the unwanted biting behavior and avoids the unwanted consequences that punishment can create.
These are nice sounding words, but for so many people this can be hard to do. They are so used to the notion that if a request is made, it MUST be followed through with a response – or else. If the horse bites, crowds, spooks, or drags you into the grass, etc. you MUST do something to punish that unwanted behavior.
Clicker training takes a very different course. This is why I started out the conversation about cues by differentiating them from commands. In our common vernacular people often use the two terms interchangeably. Making the distinction begins the journey away from force-based training. This can be an easy process for some, and a very difficult one for others. When a horse bites at you or pushes into you, it is such a natural knee-jerk reaction to want to DO something about it.
Instead we need to step back and take the time to describe what we WANT our horses to do. Then we need to figure out how to arrange the environment so that’s the behavior we get. Cues are the green lights that ask for those desired behaviors.
Playing with Cues
If you’re an experienced clicker trainer, this is all review. You know this, but here is something you may not have thought about.
You can’t play with commands. Or if you are, only one of you is having fun. Your horse is working hard to stay out of trouble. That’s not play. There are other words to describe this kind of interaction, and they aren’t very nice.
That’s why this distinction is so important. It’s not just that we want to be nice. PLAY is important for healthy brain function. If you have people around you urging you to be tougher, now you have a great reason to ignore them. Force-based training with it’s use of commands will get results, but it will have a very different emotional outcome than the one that is generated from the PLAY-based training use of cues.
Coming next: Part 2: Playing with Cues: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues
Number 2: Non-Verbal Cues
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Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training. If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites: