What are cues? Cues are your dog’s language. You will want your dog to respond to your cues from a distance, in many different settings. If you train in many dog activities/sports as I do, you won’t want the cue you use in rally or freestyle to conflict with the cues you use in agility or in the kitchen or on the trail.
What is a cue? Obviously words can be (and should be) trained as cues. But also your leash is a cue, your targets are cues, your body language is a cue. Your door, crate, environment is a cue. We often talk about “fading” the cue, which in agility might mean getting rid of a target, and in real life it means getting rid of a leash. While at first you might need to use a verbal cue to have your dog sit at the door, eventually that cue is faded and simply being near a doorway is a cue for your dog to sit.
Most of the mistakes I see in teaching cues happen when trainers don’t really understand how a cue is added or changed. They just lure their dog and they think they are teaching the dog. When the food or imaginary food in the luring hand goes away, the dog is clueless. I try not to laugh when I see a handler butt up, hand down, trying to cue their dog to lay down. If you are still luring your dog into a down, I am sure you can’t do that from a distance.
Another big mistake I am seeing is with people who are teaching directionals, or handling skills to their dog. The example that immediately comes to mind is when people teach dogs to turn around by using a lure and circling their hand over the dog’s head. Of course you can’t do that from a distance, but even worse, you often can’t do it from right beside your dog! If your dog is heeling beside you on the right, and you use your right hand to try to lure the dog to peel away from your body, first off your dog might not be able to even see your entire gesture, but secondly, you are sending a very mixed message: cueing the dog to heel at the very same moment you are cuing your dog to peel away from your body.
Eventually, many smart dogs learn to interpret our mixed messages. You teach your dog to follow your body language, and he learns that he needs to ignore your body language sometimes, just as sometimes dogs learn to ignore our words because we cue our words wrong, and they follow our body language instead! But we get a much better more consistent response when we know really how and when to add or change a cue, and how to be consistent with our cuing across all of our training platforms.
That’s one reason I don’t like luring, and I avoid it in favor of operant conditioning. Are you teaching the dog to ignore the food distractions or to focus on the food? That inconsistency takes a bite out of your dog’s performance!