Yikes, I’ve Poisoned My Dogs Cue!

What the heck does that mean?! Poisoning anything sounds dangerous and nefarious which is why so many dog trainers and clients don’t realize or want even to think that they may have poisoned their dog training cues – gasp! Sounds dangerous! Should I see the vet? No… The good news is, it won’t kill you or your dog. The bad news is, your dog gets confused and stops responding to you. Frustrating, I know. It’s not as dangerous as it may sound although it is not something you want to consciously engage in if you want an obedient pup.

Dog trainers and behaviorists use a lot of jargon and fancy words to describe behaviors, theories and the science of behavior (ethology). In less scientific, laymen terms, poisoning a cue simply means that your dog thinks the word you are using (cue) to communicate with him/her, umm, sucks. To be more politically correct, poisoning means your cue is no longer reinforcing to the dog. Somewhere along the line, your cue was paired with something not so cool, according to the dog.

If dogs could talk the conversation may go something like this:

Parent: Hey dog, come here, please. Dog, hey, I’m talking to you. Hey dog, listen to me when mommy calls you come! Come please, come, come, come, COME NOW!

Dog: Your cue sucks, deal with it. I’m not listening to you because the last time you said that cue something not so pleasant happened.

Parent: Exasperated, [email protected]#$ why won’t you come here you obstinate dog! My dog is dumb, time to find me a dog trainer!

It doesn’t have to be this way. Do not become apoplectic; your dog still loves you. It is simply a principle of Occam’s razor in effect.

Poisoned Cue Examples

I’ll focus on the cue “come,” because it is likely the most common poisoned cue for families. This is because “come” is used so much in everyday vernacular and when a pet parent does not have time to train and to think about the signal they are sending to their furball, consequences for your dog get dicey.

Well, first we should define cue. You may be more familiar with “command” however since we are not an autocratic dictator or commanding or bossing anyone around like reality television hosts, we use a cue. We are building a trusting and loving relationship with our dog, asking a question and having a dog perform a behavior on their own volition because they want to, not because they are forced to. This is the way to train and build a deep bond and strong long-lasting relationship with a very interested, alacritous and responsive dog. “Commands” went out with the 50’s, when dogs were incorrectly referred to as dominant pack animals. Let’s keep it there.

Since a poisoned cue simply means that the word you are using is no longer reinforcing for the dog, it’s nothing to worry about. However, you may be asking yourself, how the heck did that happen?! I give my dog the healthiest, best treats available on the market, I train with my dog every week, I’m very studious, we go for daily dog walks and get plenty of exercise. I love my dog, why doesn’t he listen to me and how have I poisoned the cue?

Boxer dog curled up in a ball resting

I am NOT coming!Last time you called I had to take this delicious dead fish smell off of me with a disgusting bath!

Let’s run through a few examples to highlight some typical examples that may apply to you. These may offer some clarity on where and when you may want to improve your communication with your pup to avoid poisoning a cue or to identify where you went astray.

  1. You take your dog for a morning walk to the dog park or let your dog out in the backyard. But mom is busy, and you don’t have all day, you must get to work! While your carrion Rover, love bunny, is blissfully digging up some carcass to present to you as a gift or reading his peemail on a tree or some other high rewarding activity when you call him in a stern voice, “Rover come!” and relegate him to his bed, the car, or a boring house in which he sits depressed, and unemployed for hours on end, sigh.
  2. Tubby time – Time to clean up this stinkpot, and make him smell like lavender! After you call your dog for his bath, “Rover come,” both of you crestfallen, you have to chase him down, raise your voice and call him three times to get him to come over to you. Sunken down he mopes over to you or tries to hide under the coffee table or in his crate. Why has this occurred?
  1. It’s that time of year, Muffy needs to go to the veterinarian to get her checkup, so you call your dog to the car, and your dog looks at you and runs. The only time you ever take her for a ride is when you go to the veterinarian’s office or something unsavory.
  1. How about when your dog is shredding her favorite toy to bits and is at risk of starting to ingest it. Daddy yells, “come,” Lassie comes over to you, and you yank the toy out of her mouth and then go back to reading your book. WTF, not cool, your dog looks at you like you’re crazy or doesn’t come at all next time.
  1. Cues that have been trained with a dog using punishment or “corrections” have a high degree of being poisoned. Why? Because the dog is not rewarded and does not look forward to the consequence, being punished (leash popped, neck cranked, ribs poked, butt forced down or being physically manipulated). When have you ever been forced to be friends with someone or bullied by your best friend? Dogs don’t like bullies any more than people do. For this reason and many more it is not recommended to hire a traditional “trainer” and stay far away from hacks/animal abusers and inclusive pet and dog training organizations who use, recommend or include “trainers” that use choke chains, shock collars or pronged collars or force dogs into positions, bully or intimidate dogs to get what they want. The animal will likely become emotionally, psychologically and behaviorally damaged and shut down.
  1. If a dog is confused because the pet parents are not clear, concise and consistent and the dog gets punished for his/her perceived intractability, this could also lead to a poisoned cue.

Eureka! Now that I have seen where I may have gone awry, what should I do?

Poisoned Cue Solutions

Awareness and knowing your dog’s hierarchy of rewards are both keys to being able to effect change. Without knowing this, you are stuck in the mud, or you are an Ostrich with your head in the sand. In the examples above, what are the consequences of your dog’s behavior (coming)? Is the consequence going to be something incredibly positive for your dog and/or better than what they were just doing, or worse? Does your dog enjoy (immensely) what immediately precedes the cue “come” or does it suck (for them)? The key is knowing what your dog thinks is awesome and sucks and what consequence you are associating with the cue. Your dog doesn’t care if you are late for work, or you called him over because you have been at the park for 3 hours. Or that you pulled him out of the lake to take a nap. What you are associating with the cue has to be beneficial or more beneficial than what he was doing or highly rewarding for your dog, or else kiss that cue goodbye and consider it poisoned.


Bear waiving

buh by cue, it was nice knowing you

 The good news is there is a simple solution, change the cues. Instead of using the word “come” use “here,” “now,” “peace out,” “later gator,” or any other fun word/s you like. Instead of calling a dog to do something they may not like, like tubby time, turn it into an awesome event like lining the inside of the tub with peanut butter and squirt cheese and let them lick the tub as you scrub them clean.

Why Is Poisoning A Dogs Cue So Easy To Do?

Being constantly aware, thinking like a dog, and knowing their hierarchy of rewards is not something that comes naturally to people. Your dog does not rationalize why you took away their toy or yanked them from the dog park. Remember all functional assessments start with your ABCs, Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence. That’s all folks. Always begin with defining the behavior operationally, without labels and then move to the antecedent and lastly the consequence. Antecedent stimuli or cues signal or set the occasion for the behavior to occur. As such they are part of the Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence (ABC) relationship of a functional assessment.

The solution is rather simple: invent a new cue (nonverbal and verbal communication) to signal the same behavior you would like to elicit.

The solution, as with many life solutions is awareness and consciousness of your body language and communication and understanding your dog’s reward system. Understanding what your dog perceives as a reward and responding accordingly by actualizing training events and appropriate rewarding consequences is what will keep you from poisoning cues and your dog responding reliably for the rest of his/her life.

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