Ask, don’t tell

We have lots of words for cues (such as antecedents, discriminative stimuli, conditioned stimuli, SD), but one we certainly don’t like to use is ‘command’.

It’s not just semantics, words really do matter. Using the term ‘command’ brings a very different image to mind, one of confrontation and the notion that “you better do it, or else…”.

Cues are signals that let the animal know what happens contingent on certain behaviour. You smell yummy dinner smells, head into the kitchen, and get to eat your dinner. Can you pick out the cue that told you what to do, and why you do it?

It’s as simple as A-B-C! Antecedent (yummy smells) – Behaviour (going to the kitchen) – Consequence (eating a delicious dinner)

Cues are occurring in the environment all the time; learning is happening all the time. You are not necessarily required – the environment is training your dog (and you) all the time.

We tend to think of cues as verbal signals, but really, these are probably far down the list in terms of efficacy.

Can you think of things that happen that cue behaviour in your dog, or you?
What behaviour does the sight of the dog’s lead cue? How about the sound of the doorbell?
Here’s a hint: look at the behaviour that happens after the cue.


When we say that behaviour is in the environment, this is what we mean. Things happening around the animal tells them what to expect. Learning is about anticipation.

And because learning allows the animal to anticipate what’s about to happen, they can make choices based on that information. The way we train, allows the animal time and space to make those choices; there isn’t some aversive hanging over them should they make some other choice.

When cues are framed as questions, it’s easier to illustrate. I ask Decker to choose: will I tug the toy or would he prefer I throw it? Same toy, same set up, same human, different choices depending on his preference.

Clip link (sound on for this one)

Not only am I using cues, but he is also using cues. From his point of view, him, for example, keeping hold of that toy, cues me to tug.

Why an understanding of cues, as opposed to commands, is really important is that this is a process of communication. Cues open up that communication, where as commands put a stop to it. Cues are part of a two way discussion, rather than a one-way-telling-or else.

I ask, he answers. He asks, I answer.