equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

ASAT Conference 2019: Emily Larlham – Sculpting the Cue.

Emily Larlham is a professional dog trainer who is known for her creative and fun training methods. She loves to train complex behaviors and tricks using a variety of training strategies that are based on positive reinforcement. She shares her approach in seminars and through her videos on her website (www.dogmantics.com) and Youtube channel Kikopup.

What is “Sculpting the Cue?”

Emily started her presentation with a picture of Michelangelo’s David. How did Michelangelo carve it? He chipped away everything that was not David.

This idea does not just apply to sculptors, it can be applied to dog training as well. Emily went on to show us some of the many ways that we can improve our training skills by paying more attention to what is and isn’t part of the cue.


  • The “I have not added a cue yet mentality”
  • Rolling stones gather no moss
  • Sculpting the cue

The “I have not added a cue yet mentality”

In training methods that use positive reinforcement, the training progression is often described as one where you teach the behavior first and then add the cue. This is one way to do it, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, and it can create some confusion about when and how cues are added.

In reality, as soon as we start teaching a behavior, that behavior is going to become attached to certain stimulus conditions (context cues – as described by Jesús), and we have to take the effect of those stimuli into account when we decide to “add the cue.” If we don’t, we can run into the several different problems. Using the example of a dog learning to go through a tunnel, the following scenario is likely:

  • The trainer thinks she has not added a cue, but there is always a stimulus – response contingency in play. For example, when teaching the dog to go through a tunnel, the tunnel can become the cue.
  • The trainer adds a cue, but it may not be meaningful if the dog is already using the presence of the tunnel as a cue.
  • The trainer may not discover the problem until she wants the dog to wait for the cue, in the presence of the tunnel. Or, if she wants to have several obstacles available and direct the dog to some obstacle other than the tunnel.
  • Your cue must be a better predictor than any other stimuli that are present.

Rolling stones gather no moss

Not only do you have to pay attention to stimuli that might have gotten attached to the behavior before you add “the cue,” you have to pay attention and make sure that other stimuli don’t become “attached” to your cue over time. Otherwise, they will become part of your cue.

Some common stimuli that can become attached to cues are:

  • Location of reinforcement
  • Location of handler
  • Location in environment
  • Movement of handler
  • Position of the animal’s body (starting position)
  • Previous cue given
  • Miscellaneous – time of day/surface/sounds/smells/sights


Emily had videos to illustrate each of these points and show how to keep your “stone rolling.”

Location of reinforcement: It’s not uncommon to hear trainers complain that the dog only does the behavior if he can see the treat. To avoid this, you can change the location of the treats on a regular basis. You can have them in different locations (in front of, behind, to the left/right of the dog), and also visible or discreetly tucked away.

Location of the handler: She likes to cue her dogs from different positions. Don’t let your body position (posture, stance, position relative to the dog) become part of the cue. She had a video where she was lying on the floor and cueing her dogs to do different behaviors.

Location in environment: Train in different places and in different positions within the different environments.

Movement of the handler: Our body movements can easily become cues for behavior. Emily shared a video where she was sitting in front of her dog and working on a sit behavior. Every time she looked at the camera, the dog looked at it too – which was cute, but not what she wanted.

Previous cues: It’s easy to get into a pattern of doing behaviors in the same order – cueing down after sit. She also had the example of observing people at the subway gates when the ticket gates were stuck. Some gates were stuck open and some were stuck closed. Instead of just going through the open ones, many people continued to try and use the stuck ones.

Position of the animal’s body: This often goes along with the previous point. We tend to fall into patterns and use one behavior as the starting point for another. However, if we want greater flexibility in when we can cue a behavior, we need to practice cueing the behavior after a variety of different behaviors. Not only does this build fluency, but it acknowledges the difference between asking a dog to lie down from a sit vs. a stand and reminds us that these are really two different behaviors.

Sculpting the cue

The important components are:

  • Attempt errorless learning
  • Add your cue mindfully
  • Keep changing the picture (train loosely)
  • Teach wait for the cue

Attempt errorless learning

  • Shoot for correct behavior and reinforcement following the cue 100% of the time.
  • Keep in mind that using intimidating posture or tone of voice to say the cue can affect the quality of the behavior as well as the emotional response to the cue.  The animal might be performing the behavior to avoid the intimidation rather than the behavior being driven by solely the reinforcer given.  Often trainers will follow a cue with positive reinforcement, but will also follow the cue with negative reinforcement or punishment if the animal doesn’t respond.  This means the cue not only predicts reinforcement but also punishment.  In Emily’s opinion this makes it much harder to build the cue as a secondary reinforcer.  

Add your cue mindfully

  • Say your cue after the dog has finished eating the last treat.
  • If the dog stops doing the behavior after you say your cue, stop using the cue and wait until the behavior is reliable again.
  • There is some debate about how quickly dogs learn cues – does it matter how the behavior was trained (luring vs. shaping vs. targeting etc.)? No, she thinks that if you are consistent in how you do it, your dog will learn how you (their trainer) add cues.

Keep changing the picture

Remember the list of stimuli that can “attach” themselves to your cue? Well, you want to keep those in mind when you practice your cues – varying the environment to avoid creating strong associations that might not be part of the cue that you want to use.

  • Example: She had a video of a dog doing “paws up” – putting his two front feet on a box. She changed the picture slightly with each repetition so that she is standing in a different position relative to the dog. This also changes how she reinforces because she can feed from the left, right, above, etc. Be aware that if you change too much, you can create problems.
  • Example: She showed a video of a dog doing jump-rope over pool noodles. She moved the treat bag around so the dog is not always orienting toward reinforcement. In the video, you can see that the location of the treat bag does affect the quality of the behavior.

Teach wait for the cue

There’s a yin and yang relationship between offering behavior and waiting for the cue. Yes, we want dogs to offer behavior, but we also want them to wait for cues. We have to teach them when each option is appropriate.

  • Example: Video of dog putting two feet on a balance ball. She reinforces him for doing the behavior (on cue). She also reinforces him for waiting for the cue after he has been reinforced.
  • Example: Video of terrier who gets excited when he’s waiting for a cue. Between cues he used to offer unwanted behavior so she trained him a cue “are you ready” to mean stand calmly. You can also simply teach standing or sitting calmly when not cued as a default behavior.  If you want to learn to teach this, you can watch her tutorial here.
  • It’s important to check/teach the difference between similar cues or between cues and other words. She had a video of proofing her cue “free.” She does this through errorless learning (or as close as she can get). She’s not trying to trick the dog, so she starts by saying a similar word and feeding at the same time. Basically, the dog doesn’t have time to make a mistake. Then she slowly increases the time between the new word and feeding a treat. The dog learns to discriminate between the cue and other similar sounding words.

Avoid affixing emotional baggage

Condition a positive emotional response and the correct level of arousal for the cue:

  • Avoid punishers
  • Dogs trained with food can be as stressed as dogs trained without (using food does not guarantee a desirable emotional state)
  • Attempt errorless learning
  • Make sure the dog is not over-aroused or under-aroused by the reinforcers
  • Learn to read the dog’s body language in training sessions. Ask how is the dog handling the training?

Reading dog body language

She had a series of slides with pictures for each of her points:

  • Ears – are the dog’s ears pointed toward or away from you?
  • Gaze – is the dog looking at you, or away from you?
  • Posture – is the dog learning toward or away from you?
  • You want your dog’s ears, eyes, and body to point toward you or the task.  If they start to point away this could mean that the dog is uncomfortable or stressed, that the reinforcement is not of high enough value, the session has gone on too long, the criteria is too high or that the dog is simply distracted by the surrounding environment.  If you see these signs it’s best not to add new cues.
  • Check your tone of voice, posture and body language – are you doing anything that could be aversive to the dog to cause the dog’s body language to change?

Emily has an article on reading body language in training sessions:

If you see any of these:

  • Check your tone of voice
  • Check your own posture and body language – are you doing anything that is aversive to the dog?

She finished with a fun video of one of her dogs and a ball, inspired by John Pilley and Chaser.

Katie’s notes:

Even though Emily trains dogs, everything in her presentation easily applies to horses. When I first learned to clicker train, I didn’t have a good understanding of how important it was to consider all the surrounding environmental stimuli when adding or practicing cues. That meant I ended up with a lot of cues that worked in some places but not others, or that relied on my body position relative to the horse. I was able to work through this, but it would have been simpler if I had considered when and how I was going to use my cues from the very beginning.

This is a good reason to put some thought into cues when you write your training plan. In addition to deciding how you are going to cue the behavior, you will want to consider where and how you are going to use the behavior and what cues will be most effective. For example, if I have a behavior that I want to use when I am handling the horse, working at a short distance and riding, I will usually choose to teach a verbal cue. I will also make a point of practicing that verbal cue under enough different stimulus conditions that it does not contain any extra associations. If I do notice any patterns emerging (the horse only responds when I cue under these conditions), then I have to ask myself if that’s ok, or if I need to clean things up.

Around the barn, I tend to use a variety of verbal and visual cues. But I’ll admit that once a behavior has been learned and it becomes part of my normal routine, I get sloppy about cueing behaviors under slightly variable conditions. For example, I can easily ask my horse to back if I am standing in front of or to the side of her, but I rarely need to ask my horse to back while I am standing behind her, so it’s not something I practice very often. And practicing is important. Even if I start off by varying my position relative to the horse, I can lose that flexibility if I get in the habit of only cueing from in front of her.

My experience has been that horses are very context sensitive and I always have to be thinking about whether that is going to work in my favor, or not. I think I may insert Emily’s checklist into my training plans as a reminder to clearly define the conditions under which I want to use my cues so that I can make sure that nothing unwanted attaches itself to them.

While I try to be accurate in my note taking, there may be some errors either in my understanding or my presentation of the information from this talk. If you have questions, feel free to contact me or leave a comment.

Thanks to Emily Larlham for allowing me to share her presentation. Thanks to the ORCA students and to the organizers of the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference for all their hard work on putting on this great event.

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1 reply

  1. This is really interesting. I can’t agree more with the statement that there are always cues in the environment or our body posture therefore the “I have not added a cue yet mentality” can be an illusion. And I am very glad that Emily think there isn’t much difference between luring, shapin and targeting as a training method. Usually shaping is overrated, but I noticed with my dog that luring has more clarity and helps avoid frustration that occurs often during shaping. Thank you very much for posting this summary of Emily’s lecture.


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