Poisoned Cue

A brief explanation of what a poisoned cue is and how to correct it!

·        a poisoned cue is one that a dog has made a negative association with

·        how to prevent poisoning a cue in the first place

·        how to overcome a poisoned cue


What is a "poisoned” cue? A poisoned cue is a cue that the dog has made a negative association with a cue. This is likely to happen when you decide to use punishment in your training. Your cue is no longer just a means of communicating to the dog what you’d it to do – it has become a sort of threat. This is just one more reason why punishment and aversive techniques are not a wise decision when it comes to training your dog. A poisoned cue cuts down on reliability and can sour your relationship with your dog.

Example: A poisoned recall (the “come!” cue) - You call the dog to you and do something the dog finds unpleasant, you call the dog to you to punish the dog (many a novice dog owners make this mistake when they call a dog to them to punish an accident… this is for another blog post), or you only call the dog to you to end the fun it is having.

Example: I have seen numerous men call their dogs to them and happily smack the dogs rear or grab the scruff of the dog’s face. The man enjoys this interaction but 9 times out of 10 the dog does not. This is something the dog could find unpleasant, even punishing – thus it could poison the recall. Be aware of your dog's likes and dislikes, this can make a world of difference in your training!

In the case of a poisoned recall, it is common that one of the following with occur: 1. You have a dog who hesitates to come when called or takes a long, long time to come to you. 2. The dog does not come at all when called. 3. The dog actively seeks to get more distance between the two of you.

Note: a poisoned cue is different from a cue that a dog has “learned irrelevance” to.

Dog’s perspective: I go to my owner as I’ve been trained/asked to do, then something bad/something that I do not like happens… I think I am better off taking my time, pretending like I don’t hear them, or just not going to them at all.

It is imperative for reliability to do your best not to poison your cues. If you have poisoned a cue, take heart because with some time and effort you can get on the right track.

If you have poisoned a cue:

1.      Assess the damage – is the cue now something the dog will actively avoid? Is the dog simply hesitant/reluctant? How negative of an association has the dog made with the cue?

2.      Depending on the level of damage to the cue, you will have to adjust accordingly. You may have to go back to kindergarten with your dog and re-name the cue entirely and re-train the behavior that goes with it.

Example: if the “come!” cue has been poisoned, you will pick a new verbal cue, possibly even create a new hand signaled for the behavior.

3.      Begin training this new verbal cue and hand signal with a Grade A reward and positive reinforcement only. The goal is to have the dog make a very positive association with the new cue. Whatever happened before that poisoned the cue must not happen when you train and use the new cue – learn from your mistakes!

Example: the dog does not respond to the “come!” cue due to a negative association or past punishment.

1.      Possibly create and teach a new hand signal

2.      Start in an area with no distractions and no more than 3 feet

3.      Teach a new verbal cue such as “recall!”, “here!”, etc.

4.      Make it extremely rewarding for the dog to perform the desired behavior – bring out Grade A rewards, your pageant smile and a whole lot of praise!

5.      Throw away the poisoned cue if necessary

Of course, there are other ways a cue could be poisoned that are out of the control of the human. For example, you are working on the “touch” cue with your dog just as a firecracker goes off resulting in a terrified dog. This could poison the “touch” cue depending on how traumatic the event was for the dog.

At the end of the day, we all make mistakes when working with our dogs. The goal is to always be improving!