Clicker Training; Command or Cue ?!

Clicker Training; Command or Cue ?!

In the first post about cues, I talked about how they are all around us and that a cue is simply something that is an accurate predictor of the outcome of a particular behaviour in the presence of that cue.  So when my hand motions down to my horses that ‘cue’ is an accurate predictor that if they head lower, they will get a click.  Likewise, a click is an accurate predictor that I will go in to food delivery mode.  For my dog, the same hand cue for her is a predictor that a ‘down’ in the presence of that cue will earn her a click.  They have learned that the outcome of the behaviour in the presence of that cue is predictable through a history of reinforcements.  In other words, they have learned this through frequent experience of what behaviour will earn them a click in the presence of that cue.

In the next post about cues I talked about poisoned cues; If, in the past, a cue has sometimes meant the outcome of their behaviour resulted in a reinforcer and other times in a punisher they will behave in the same way we do.  They may show avoidance behaviours, displacement activity (e.g. yawning while training) and may even just stop working with us at all (they may even look like they have gone to sleep).

This time I am going to talk a bit about nomenclature.  As you will have seen in my posts I talk about ‘cues’, not commands.  Yet I hear the term command used in training a lot.  So what is the difference ?  Is that difference important ?

What is a cue ?

Putting on your own halter

The halter is a cue to the horse to put their nose in the loop

Here is a dictionary definition of what a cue is; a signal, such as a word or action, used to prompt another event in a performance, such as an actor’s speech or entrance, a change in lighting, or a sound effect.

And in psychology terms; a stimulus, either consciously or unconsciously perceived, that elicits or signals a type of behaviour.

In clicker training we use cues to indicate to the horse that ‘reinforcement is available if you perform a particular behaviour’.  The particular behaviour is indicated by the cue that is used.

Initially behaviours are not on cue so we have to offer so much more guidance in terms of e.g. rope handling.  Then as we progress with teaching each behaviour the horse will learn some cues that are predictable and we can also add a particular cue.

For a cue to become a cue, it has to be predictable and presented frequently enough for the horse to associate it with the behaviour.

What is a command ?

Here is a dictionary definition of what a command is; to give orders, to exercise authority or control as or as if one is a commander.  Wow, spot the difference ?

Often commands come with consequences, unwanted consequences.  If we think of the dog who does not heel when asked to, they often will get a leash pop, or the horse who will not lift a leg when told will often get hit or shoved.  The consequences of not obeying a command are unpleasant.

Is the difference important ?

As a clicker trainer, the difference is very important to me.  The reason it is important is how I want my horses to think about me and about the training.  I want them to be with me and stay with me as we train because they want to, not because I make them.

If we think about a time when we were given a command ‘do your chores or you will be grounded’.  Then think about how we behaved….do we rush to do the chores with a smile on our face ? what would your focus be on, chores or the fact you might get grounded ?

I want my horses to want to be with me

I want my horses to want to be with me

What if you didn’t finish your chores and get grounded.  How do you feel when faced with being told to do chores again ?  Do you rush to get them done ?  If you do then is it with enthusiasm or is it purely to avoid being punished ?  In other words, do you comply because you want to or because you have to ?  If you don’t do them then you will get grounded again, but say you choose not to do them (you become rebellious)…if you were a horse you might pull away, buck, rear, kick out, bolt etc.

Then continue with that behaviour and you continue to get punished, you might eventually just give in and do the chores as it is easier to comply (conditioned suppression).  If you don’t comply then the chances are you stop complying with being grounded.  So you rebel even more.  If you were a horse then you might be getting less and less manageable, dangerous in fact.  The horse that everyone on the yard knows to avoid.

If we flip that on it’s head and instead of being grounded for NOT doing chores, you are given £5 for doing them.  Now how do you feel about doing your chores ?  Are you keen to do them ?  Will go willingly do them again ?


Now here is an interesting one…..say you are told you will be given £5 for doing your chores.  This time there is a caveat; when your chores are checked for each chore you did not complete to the satisfaction of your parents they deduct £0.10 from your £5.  How do you feel now ?  You are now faced with an unpredictable outcome, which brings us back to poisoned cues.  You are given a reinforcer, but the actual outcome is unpredictable….will you get the full payment, or part of it.  This leads to stress and anxiety to perform and changes the reasons you do your chores well.

How would you alter this scenario with your knowledge of clicker training to ensure the child completes chores, and completes them well and still have a predictable outcome for the child ?

As you see, it is vitally important to know whether you are training with a cue or a command.  What consequences do your requests for your horses behaviour have ?  Are they good and predictable consequences, unwanted consequences, or are they unpredictable rewards ?

This is why the nomenclature is so important.  Once you understand the difference between a cue and command, as with all nomenclature, the use of the words taint how you think/feel about what is being described to you.  Through our lifetime we attach memories to words.  When we say these words they will draw on those memories and with those memories will come emotions; the words trigger certain emotions.  So when we use the words cue or command, we attach prior learning to how we feel about them.

So yes, there is a huge difference between a cue and a command.  And more importantly; YES, the difference IS important.


This entry was posted in clicker training and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s