What is cue escalation? This is what happens when a handler gives a dog a cue, and the dog responds with the “wrong behavior”, and when the handler reattempts to give the cue, the cue has changed. It has gotten bigger, louder, slower, faster, more obvious, etc. The dog responds with the correct behavior, and then is reinforced, but most of the time, if the handler returns to the original cue they gave, the problem behavior returns.

I see cue escalation appear in a variety of situations, but most commonly:
1. When the handler is first learning a skill

2. When the handler is using Fix and Go

3. When the handler is trying to teach the dog something new

In the first situation, it happens when the dog is added to the equation too early. If the handler doesn’t fully understand what the cue is, how can we expect the dog to know what the behavior is? Let’s take a front cross for example:

Handler tries a front cross with the dog for the first time. Handler is missing a couple of key elements, so the dog refuses the jump and comes with the handler (but follows the “front cross”). The dog doesn’t get rewarded.

Next try, the handler gets the dog over the jump, but her front cross is very late, causing the dog to go very wide and goes behind her to the wrong side. The dog doesn’t get rewarded.

Third try, the handler does the front cross pretty well, but decides to stand still after and call the dog loudly to make sure he comes to the correct side. It works! The handler is so pleased and finally rewards the dog.

What did either learner accomplish here? Did the handler learn how her physical cues affect the dog? Did the dog learn how to follow a front cross? Each time the cue changed, and so did the dog’s behavior, but only one combination got rewarded. This is a poor model of training for BOTH the human and the dog!

How can we change this situation? I would suggest to this handler to practice the front cross mechanics many, many times without the dog. Then, I would use placement of reward to make it as easy as possible for the dog to respond in the way the handler expects them to respond. We can also back-chain all of the handling techniques when teaching them to less experienced handlers and dogs.

In the second scenario, I am seeing happen in Fix n Go situations. You’re running along and your dog misses their dog walk contact. So, you take them back to the obstacle before to reattempt the dog walk, but something is different…

  • You slow down your running pace, or
  • You repeat the cue “touch, touch, TOUCH…”, or add other cues “touch-STAY”
  • You turn your body towards the dog

Essentially, you escalate the cue until your dog does the thing you’re looking for, but what did the dog learn? What did you take away from that?

The good news is, you’ve uncovered the help that your dog needs to be successful in this situation. The bad news is, you might be creating a habit of what your dog expects the cue to be. We need to pay close attention to how we use Fix and Go, and how that might impact our training in the long run.

How can we change this situation? Video all of your runs. Take notes on the cue you gave when the mistake happened vs the cue you gave when the dog got it correct. Then, decide how you will move forward with that information.

In the third situation, I think about training weave poles entries.

Dog is doing well up to a certain point, and then they make a mistake. The handler changes their position just slightly, or leans forward, or moves their hips just a little to help shape the dog’s approach. Dog gets it right, and the handler moves on to the next entry, where they fail again, and the cycle continues.

Many times, the handler is completely unaware of the cue escalation, or they are aware and it comes from a place of best intentions: you want to help the dog succeed!

I am in favor of this, but, helping the dog to get it right by changing the current cue to a cue you cannot reasonably repeat consistently is not doing either one of you any favors!

How can we change this situation? In most cases like these, we need to be creative about how we split behaviors down and increase the challenges more slowly, to build on success. I really like to “ping-pong” my training to help dogs in learning weave entries. That would look like: 1 = easy entry, 2 = intermediate entry, 3 = hard entry, 4 = super hard (you get the idea)
1, 1, 2, 2, 1, 2, 3, 1, 1, 2, 3, 2 and a session the next day might be:
2, 2, 3, 3, 2, 3, 4, 2, 2, 3, 4, 3 and so on, until you have fluency at all stages.

To try and wrap this up, you should be setting up your conditions so that the dog can get it correct with the cue you want to provide long term, vs a variation of the cue you’d like to give!

If you are providing this cue escalated “help”, in competition, you need to be taking good notes & keeping track of how often you are using this different cue, because it is becoming the cue your dog is responding to and being reinforced for. You want to take your notes back into training and clean up your cues with clear antecedent arrangements to make sure your dog is responding to the cue you want them to be responding to.

This of course, requires some fluency and consistency of the cues you’d like to provide, so check back later for my next blog on consistency within a handling system!

About Synergy Dog Sports

Committed to providing a supportive learning environment for learners at both ends of the leash, Megan works with each team as individuals, bringing them to the next level no matter which path you choose to take with her: in-person classes, seminars, online classes, or 1-on-1 coaching.