equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

Do You Have a Cue for That?

Rosie question 005Last week I posted a video on my facebook page of Aurora learning the difference between targeting and manipulating an object, and it reminded me of something that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. This is the importance of making sure that each new behavior has its own cue, that the cue is regularly practiced, and that old behaviors don’t lose their cues when new behaviors are taught. This may sound like another way of saying that every behavior needs its own unique cue, and it is, but I wrote it this way because it highlights some of the scenarios where a trainer with good intentions can end up with a cueing problem.

I titled this article “Do you have a cue for that?” because that’s the question I often end up asking people when they come to me with certain types of training problems. Here are a few scenarios where you might think you had a cue, but it turns out you didn’t. Or maybe you had one, but you “lost” it along the way. Or maybe you thought you didn’t need to add one, but later realized that having a more specific cue would be useful.

SCENARIO ONE:  It seemed like the horse knew the behavior (and had it on cue), but she was really relying on a set of context cues and the cue doesn’t work in other situations.

This can easily happen if you tend to work on a behavior in the same location or under similar conditions most of the time. Sometimes it just doesn’t occur to me that I might want to add a final cue to the behavior and try it in new locations, because the horse is so reliable about doing the behavior as part of its normal routine. To avoid having this happen, I like to ask for behaviors in different locations and make sure that I have an active cue that tells the horse what I want her to do. This is sometimes referred to as part of generalizing a behavior or making it fluent. Here are some examples of behaviors where it is easy to forget to add a cue and generalize the behavior:

  • Husbandry behaviors like grooming and bathing where I work in the same location and my horse has learned to stand quietly because it has a strong reinforcement history for standing for those behaviors under those conditions.
  • Standing at the mounting block, or any behavior that involves a particular piece of equipment. Once my horse learns to line up nicely at your mounting block, it’s a good idea to practice lining up at other types of mounting blocks, logs, etc…
  •  This includes using targets. Most horses learn to recognize familiar targets and the target itself becomes part of the cue. If I want to ask your horse to target new objects, then I need to have a cue for that.

SCENARIO TWO:  I taught the behavior and put it on cue, but I find I use the cue less and less because my horse anticipates and starts using other information (context cues) instead of waiting for the cue.

This is not necessarily a bad thing and happens quite easily if I tend to ask for the same behaviors under the same conditions. The reason I listed it here is that cues get “rusty” if the horse doesn’t get to practice responding to them. So if I find I am not using my cues because the horse is doing the behavior before I use my intended cue, then I will want to find other times to practice that cue. Here’s an example:

  • I teach all my horses to back off the verbal cue “back” and when I first add the cue, I am very conscientious about asking for it in different places and under different conditions. But over time I fall into a pattern of using it in under very predictable conditions and my horses offer backing off context cues. They learn to back up when I approach doors and gates and bring them their dinner.This is really nice and soon they are offering to back up before I can cue them. I love this and don’t want to discourage them from anticipating during our daily routine, but it does mean that I find I rarely use my verbal cue. So it’s important for me to make sure that they still respond to the verbal cue by using it in other situations.
  • I follow a routine pattern (LF, LH, RF, RH) when I clean out my horses’ feet. Once the horse knows the pattern, he will offer the next foot before I ask for it. Again, this is a nice behavior, but I have to make a point of occasionally doing them in a different order, or just asking for a foot at other times so that I maintain a good response to my intended cue.

SCENARIO THREE:  I used an existing behavior as the starting point for a new behavior, and didn’t make sure I ended up with two behaviors (the original and the new one) and two cues (for the original and the new one) when I was done.

Once a horse has learned several behaviors, it’s not unusual to teach a new behavior by starting with an existing behavior and shaping it into something new. Being able to start with an existing behavior is one of the fun parts of clicker training because I can sometimes train new behaviors very quickly if I don’t have to start from scratch. Kay Laurence has a nice image of looking at an animal’s repertoire of behaviors or shaping history as a tree with many branches. You start by training several basic behaviors (these are the trunk and main branches).  You can add new behaviors by building on the first ones, and these new behaviors are all the branches that come off the trunk and main branches. It’s a nice image that shows the relationship between different behaviors.

The catch here is that when I use an existing behavior as the starting point for a new behavior, it’s easy to end up losing access to the original behavior unless I am very clear about putting the new variation on a different cue. If I don’t do that, then instead of ending up with two behaviors (the original and the new one), each with their own cue, I end up with a new behavior that is using the cue for the original behavior.  Here are some examples:

  • My horse has learned to touch a target with her muzzle. I use this behavior (targeting) to teach the horse to touch and then interact with the object and shape her to pick it up. I might find that my horse now wants to pick up other objects when I ask her to target them. The targeting behavior has been “lost.”  I need to go back and confirm the targeting behavior and its cue, and make sure that the new behavior has its own cue.
  • This can happen quite easily if I am shaping movement and select out a different way of moving (head position, length of stride, elevation, etc…) where I am using self-directed learning so there is no obvious prompt or stimulus that is attached to the new behavior.
  • I have taught my horse to walk quietly next to me when I walk around in the ring. The behavior I shaped has the horse in a relaxed frame with his head and neck level with his withers. Over a period of time this has become the default behavior for walking with me in the ring and I don’t actively cue it. The horse just offers it if I go up to the ring and walk around. Now I decide to shape the horse to walk next to me with his neck lower, so that he learns to stretch down in the walk. Over time he starts to offer this behavior more and more until I have shaped a nice walk with a lowered head and neck. This is my new behavior.

    At this point I need to add a cue to the new behavior because otherwise this walk will become the new “default” behavior for walking with me in the ring. But this is not enough. I also need to make sure that the original walk has an active cue (and is not just the default). Otherwise I have no way to communicate to my horse which walk I want. This can end up being very frustrating for both horse and trainer because there will be situations in which he offers the new walk when I don’t want it and I would like to be able to cue the original walk. It’s not enough to rely on context cues once I have several behaviors that could be the “right answer” under the same conditions.

SCENARIO FOUR:  I have a behavior that I often look for as a component of other behaviors, but not alone, so I have never added a cue that allows me to ask for it separately.

This is more likely to happen with behaviors that are added criteria, and not the main focus of my shaping.   If a behavior occurs on a regular enough basis (due to natural variations), I can select for it during the shaping process by clicking for those moments when the horse happens to be doing it.  This works for the most part, but I find the horse often has less awareness of what is being clicked and it does put me in an awkward position if I find myself withholding the click because that criteria is missing.  I find that a good rule of thumb is that if I want the same behavior as a component of several other behaviors, it’s a good idea to also train it separately and give it its own cue.

  • A very common example is head position. I can teach a horse to stand on a mat with its head in a certain position by clicking the horse for standing on the mat, and then clicking again to mark a certain head position.  Over time, the horse will learn that it gets clicked for being on the mat with its head in a certain position, and I can wait until I have both components (feet on the mat, head position) before I click. If I want to train another behavior and use the same head position, I can do the same thing (select for head position) and over time my horse will learn to offer that head position when experimenting during shaping.Horses will continue to repeat reinforced behaviors so this can work pretty well, especially if I tend to use the same head position for many behaviors. But if I get in a situation where that criteria is not met, and my horse is not moving its head at all, I have no way to communicate to the horse which piece is missing (this gets worse as I add criteria.) Therefore, I find it very useful to be able to cue the individual criteria.
  • Another example is foot position (front feet square, all four feet square). For some behaviors, I like the horse to stand in a balanced position. A lot of horses will square up their front feet when coming to a halt so I can make this part of the criteria for being clicked at the halt. But if I want to add this to other behaviors, it is worth taking the time to add a cue so that when the horse halts out of position, I can ask him to square up. If I want to be able to ask for all four feet square, then I would want to have a cue for that too.

Most of these scenarios are ones that could be resolved in different ways (you don’t HAVE to do it by adding a cue), but they are presented as examples of times when it would be really handy to have a cue and you might find yourself saying “Wow, I wish I had a cue for that!”


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