House of Cues: Reinforcing behaviors for pets
Ryan Summerlin April 22, 2013
I barely touch the coffee pot and Lucy is instantly at my side, running quickly from where ever she was in a three-story home. She is excited and expectant. I could be making coffee at 6 a.m., 8 a.m., noon or in the evening. The time of day does not matter, simply the most miniscule of noises associated with making coffee. Why? When she was a puppy almost 13 years ago, I had a habit of making coffee in the morning and then giving her a treat right after. My habits changed shortly after that and for 12 years the dogs get their breakfast in the morning, before I make coffee and with no treats following coffee. Yet, she still responds to the slightest sound, even after 12 years of no reinforcement.
A fabulous exercise to do in understanding your dog is to notice how they respond to the slightest of cues in your daily routine: the rattle of car keys, the sound of your car coming up the road and into the driveway, picking up the leash, putting on your running or ski clothing. My dogs can tell the difference between cross country ski clothing, in which case they will be participating in the upcoming activity and dance with joy, as opposed to downhill ski clothing in which case they will be left at home and they respond with going back to bed (or not even getting out of bed!).
This is such a great example of how dogs learn. A “cue” that is immediately followed by the same outcome repetitively will result in the same actions from your dog. After time, your dog will respond to this cue regardless of the outcome. As you watch this in action with your dog, notice which cues get the fastest and most motivated response: those that have a good outcome for your dog! This is another example of the power of positive reinforcement. Dogs will be motivated to do something that has a good outcome for them such as food, games or fun adventures.
Being aware of cues that have a bad outcome for your dog is also important. Many dogs suffer from separation anxiety. Their anxiety starts to build the instant they see their human reach for a coat or the car keys, or they know their human’s schedule and will start stressing before it is even time to leave. Treating separation anxiety takes time, skill, patience and a multi-faceted approach. Picking apart all of the cues that a dog has associated with their human leaving is part of the training.
So take the time to notice how your dog responds to your “house of cues.” You will gain a clearer understanding of how your dog learns as well as deepen your communication with your canine companion.