The difference between ‘command’ and ‘cue’

August 03, 2021
dog cue

When we’re training our dogs we often want them to learn to do a behaviour when we say a word. Traditional dog trainers call this word a ‘command’ whereas more modern dog trainers tend to use the word ‘cue’.

What’s the difference? Does it actually matter?

On the surface, it’s really easy to shrug your shoulders and think “hey, they’re similar, they can just be used interchangeably; we all know what we mean”.

But here’s the thing; when we’re training our dogs we have to take account of all the variables; at a basic level this means thinking about which treats we’re using, where we’re doing the training, how we’re teaching the behaviour, what we actually want them to do, when we’re going to mark them and why we want them to learn this skill.

We also have to consider who is teaching them; as one half of the partnership in learning, we as humans have a huge impact on how well our dog learns a skill.

I believe the way we approach our training sessions, the mindset we bring with us and the values we hold all have a direct impact on the learning experience. Our emotional state has a huge bearing on how well the session goes; we’ve all had those experiences where our training goes like a dream and we leave on a high!

But how do words impact that?

Let’s look at the dictionary definitions:

Command. Verb (used without object). To issue and order or orders. To be in charge; have authority. (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/command?s=t)

Cue. Noun. A hint; intimation, guiding suggestion. (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/cue?s=t)

When we describe what we do as ‘issuing a command’ there’s automatically a level of expectation here. If I command you to sit on the chair, I expect to see you perform that action for me. I was in charge; I held authority. Any failure on your part to do this is seen as an act of defiance; you’re choosing not to do as you were told. This has a direct effect on my emotions; I’m instantly aggrieved you’ve disobeyed me, I’m grumpy you didn’t do as you were told and I become frustrated.

Now I’m a pretty good grown up; I’ve got a good handle on my emotions and I’m polite enough to mask this from you. So, I’ll quite willingly issue you a command again without too much drama. If you continue to ignore me though, I’ll probably get increasingly frustrated. After a while, I’m going to struggle to mask that and I’ll start to let my true emotions slip though; perhaps I’ll eye roll, tut or huff at you. If I continue issuing my command I’ll start to use a harsher and more authoritative tone of voice and I might even change my body language; leaning forward, making myself larger and challenging you with direct eye contact all in an effort to establish my authority and get you to comply with my command.

It’s not because I’m a horrible person, it’s because I issued you with a command; I assumed a position of authority and I expected you to comply. When you didn’t comply my subconscious took over and did what it thought was appropriate to get you to comply; it asserted my dominance.

Unfortunately this means both of us had a pretty rubbish experience; you felt bullied and I felt angry!

Let’s switch it out though, and say I use a cue. Now a cue is a bit more wishy washy than a command; it’s me hinting at the behaviour I’d like you to perform. There’s no level of automatic expectation; I cannot expect someone to ‘get the hint’ straight away; we’ve all had those moments of hinting that the really awkward person you’re stuck talking to might actually like to end the conversation. What do we do in these situations? Well, we look for alternative solutions. We find other cues to give, we become less subtle and more obvious until we manage to get our message across.

So lets go back to this idea of me asking you to sit in a chair. I might start by simply asking you. If you don’t do it though, my instinct is to think of an alternative solution. I might try the same words but in a different tone, I might start gesticulating towards a chair, I might even take you over to it and show you what I want. I’ll try quite a lot of things to help you understand and you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be feeling pretty chuffed when you finally get the hint!

In this situation, you might very well have thought I’ve gone mad, but you’ll hopefully be feeling fairly comfortable with me and open to trying what I’m suggesting. I might have got a bit frustrated as I tried to think of alternative strategies but ultimately it wasn’t quite the same level of frustration I felt before.

This is really important in dog training. If a dog doesn’t do what we ask them to do, it’s because of one of two reasons:

1. They didn’t understand what I asked them to do

2. They understood what I asked but they weren’t motivated to do it

When they don’t sit when I ask them to, it’s because of one of these two reasons.

If I issue a command, I’m unlikely to be able to step back and consider these reasons though; I automatically flick into defensive mode and start feeling frustrated.

If I issue a cue, I’m much more likely to take a step back and address these issues; after all, they’re the key to helping my suggestion become clear to them!

Ultimately, my simple but thought through choice of words has a huge impact on my actions when the dog doesn’t do as I ask. By choosing to see my words as cues, I’m changing my thought process, my response to a situation and my ability to move forward in a constructive way.

It also releases me from the burden of frustration and anger that comes with being defied; I’m literally a happier person as a result.

These factors have a massive, massive effect on how our dogs respond to the learning situation. They’re much more likely to continue working with the compassionate human who helps them out.

Next time you’re training, consider viewing your words as hints and suggestions. If they don’t understand what you’re after, you’re absolutely encouraged to think of alternative hints and suggestions to help them out.

Make a conscious decision to refer to your words as ‘cues’; you’ll remind your brain of the choice you’ve made, allowing your subconscious permission to look for alternative strategies and releasing it from the thought that it needs to be grumpy when your dog doesn’t do something. The more we deliberately programme our brains towards openness and compassion, the more we’ll enjoy our training sessions and the more effective they will be.

Have fun training!

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Hi, I’m Rachael from Bob and Pals!

We offer dog walking and dog training to enrich the lives of dogs and owners in Horsforth, Cookridge, Adel, Yeadon and Rawdon through fun!

If you are interested in our services please contact us to book.

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