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The Poisoned Cue
Here is an article from Karen Pryor's new book (Reaching The Animal MInd) a must buy.
The Poisoned Cue
Cues can be wonderfully powerful, but it's a power that's easy to sabotage.
Switching back to correction is the fastest way to do that. Up until
now the cue has been good news. Hear the word sit, sit, get a treat.
Then, however, the dog does not sit, and you respond with punishment.
Do that two or three times, and the meaning of the cue changes.
The outcome is in doubt. "Sit" used to be a promise; now it's also a
How does the dog feel about that? Still banking on reward or fearing
the pain? Look at the dog; you'll see a little of both. The trainer says
"Sit!" and the dog sits, but dubiously, slowly, head low, with anxiety
written all over its face. You still get the behavior, but you get fear and
avoidance, too. You have poisoned your cue.
As I became aware of this phenomenon, I realized I no longer
enjoyed watching certain dog competitions, partly because of the visible
abundance of poisoned cues. In 2002 I published some thoughts
on the poisoned cue in a British dog magazine. I also bounced the idea
off Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, the behavior analyst who first became seriously
interested in both basic and applied research into clicker training.
Jesus and his graduate students started exploring the poisoned cue
experimentally. They learned that the poisoned cue is a real phenomenon;
they could re-create it at will, using the students' own dogs. Furthermore,
they found that the anxiety-related behavior a poisoned cue
generates becomes a permanent part of the cue response, even if you
then use only positive reinforcement for hundreds of trials.
Is this ambiguous cue still a conditioned reinforcer? Can you still use
it to reinforce other behaviors or to link behaviors together in a chain?
Or not? The poisoned-cue concept raises a lot of new questions.
The easy solution to the problem of a poisoned cue is to give the
behavior a new cue. The behavior itself hasn't changed, and the new cue
will carry none of the freight of the one that accidentally got tainted.
Replacing cues can be a powerful tool for rehabilitating the deteriorating
performance of agility or obedience dogs, dressage horses, and
other animals used in competitive sports, or of pet or shelter dogs who
have learned that their name is bad news and that the words Come here
mean "run the other way." Pragmatically, though, a trainer is wise to
avoid poisoning cues gratuitously, and to get rid of poisoned cues if
you have some. A poisoned cue is forever a source of fear; and fear is
the enemy of good training.
Dave and Molly
Ian Dunbar was awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award from I.P.D.T.A. Here's a picture of me accepting the award on his behalf.
Member of IAABC ,International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants , Member of Pet Professional Guild
Last edited by davetgabby; 07-17-2009 at 06:04 PM.