Modern trainers use the term “cue”, often confusing clients who grew up using the term “command.” More than once a client has looked up when I’ve asked them to give their dog a cue, and said, “a what?”
Since educators are supposed to be good communicators, why insist on using the new(ish) lingo?
First, “cue” accurately describes what we are doing. The Oxford Dictionary defines “cue”, as a “thing said or done that serves as a signal to an actor or other performer to enter or to begin their speech or performance.” If you consider the behaviors that we teach our dogs a performance, then giving them a cue to begin a behavior makes perfect sense.
Second, it expands our understanding of why dogs might choose to behave a certain way, in a certain context. Behavior doesn’t happen randomly: it is always in response to an internal or external event. Just as we might take a cue from a host’s yawn and say, “it’s time to go”, even if they ask you to stay, dogs are not only taking cues from us, but also from the world around them. This explains a lot when you think about it. You do not need to rely on labels like disobedience or stubbornness to attempt to explain your dog’s behavior when you recognize that there is more going on in your dog’s world than just you (and we haven’t even touched on genetics or learning history).
I like to use the example of intending to drive to the store after work, but soon finding yourself pulling in the driveway at home. You were not disobedient, you simply saw a visual cue—although it could have been nonvisual— to turn somewhere along the drive home, and then you saw another, such as a tree at the end of your street, until next thing you knew, you were pulling into your driveway. An example of a nonvisual cue might be your stomach growling, telling you that it’s time for dinner. If our own behavior is controlled by the world around us in this way, it is not fair to expect our canine friends to tune it all out perfectly every time and be obedient. Instead, we need to look at how we can arrange the environment to make our animals successful and how to reinforce desired behaviors so that they increase in frequency. This may be done, for example, by reducing environmental distraction until your dog is performing the behaviors you want, happily.
In this way, the concept of a cue gives us a paradigm for handling behavior that takes context into account. So many problem behaviors can be overcome through a good antecedent arrangement—change the environment and change the resultant behavior. For example, I was working on a heeling pattern the other day. After each click, my dog swung out of position to get his treat in front of me. My treat pouch was on my side opposite to my dog. I moved my pouch behind me, and, without any other modification, cue, or command, my dog remained in position for his treat—no struggle between wills required; I just removed a competing cue.
There is a third reason for my preferring the terminology “cue” over “command”, however, and it speaks to ethics. How do you see your dogs?
Although animals were seen as independent actors in the early medieval period, this changed over time. From the late 1500s on it became common for humans to view animals as machines: without feeling, intellect, or consciousness. Decartes was a prominent proponent of these outdated notions, which modern scientists have begun to refute. There is more work to be done, but even so, we can no longer accept that dogs are thoughtless and without feeling.
Dogs remember events much the way we do. Dogs form attachments to their human caregivers in a manner that is strikingly like the attachments formed by human infants. Dogs experience different emotional reactions based on a person’s expression, whether it’s happy, which activates reward centers in the brain, or angry, which activates more primal limbic systems. Whether dogs are sentient is still debated by some, but there is compelling evidence, such as the functional magnetic resonance imaging (“fMRI”) work of Professor Gregory Burns, supporting the belief that dogs experience emotions like us and share a level of consciousness similar to that of a human child.
Other animals also exhibit behavior we regularly attribute to humans. Rats play hide and seek; birds make tools; and there are other examples. While scientists still argue over whether animals are self-aware, it is accepted that they think and feel and have likes and dislikes.
If dogs form attachments to their human caregivers that mirror the child–parent relationship, and they remember episodic events, and they possess preferences regarding people, and can discern emotions in another being, then they are not equivalent to property. We need to recognize that animals are something more. Animals, including dogs, are independent, sentient creatures. As such, we do not have the right to demand absolute obedience.
Animals are entitled to likes and dislikes and other competing interests of their own—it is our job to incentivize them to behave as we wish. While it is practical and quite likely reasonable that they do not hold all the rights of a human (although this is debated), their inherent value is much more than their purchase price and their lives are much more than how they meet our human needs.
Even the courts are catching up on this evolution of our attitudes toward animals, with one judge stating that, “a pet is not an inanimate thing that receives affection, it also returns it”, while holding that a plaintiff was entitled to greater damages for the loss of her dog’s body than the dog’s market value. Corso v. Crawford Dog and Cat Hospital, 415 N.Y.S.2nd 182 (NY Civ Ct, 1979). This trend has continued with increasing numbers of cases holding that animals are not property. See, e.g., Murray v. Bill Wells Kennels, Ltd., Wayne County Circuit Court No. 95-536479-NO (Mich. 1997). See also, Wolf, C.L., Legal Re-Classification of Animals is Long Overdue.
Using the term “cue” and eliminating the term “command” helps support a change in mindset: dogs are not ours to do with as we wish. Our animals deserve choices and whatever autonomy is practical in each setting. We need to accept “misbehavior” as a function of learning history and environment and not an intentionally willful or malicious act. Animals are individuals: they are not simple extensions of our own egos. Using “cue” promotes kindness in our training and our relationships with our dogs—and hopefully any human or animal with whom we interact.
By K. Gordon