What is a cue? It’s a signal to begin an action. A cue can be verbal (such as the word sit), visual (such as pointing), environmental (such as you grabbing your keys to leave for work), or really anything that one can perceive. When you look up the word cue in the dictionary it lists the following synonyms; clue, hint, indication, inkling, intimation, lead, suggestion. Cues come in many forms, and when they are clear and consistent it’s an easy way to make life less confusing for a fearful dog (or any dog really!)
Verbal Cues for Real Life Events
I use many cues with Finn, so that I can be clear in what I am about to do, or what is about to happen. This clarity takes the guessing game out of it for him, which in turn can help him be more relaxed. I’m not sure if dogs understand the meaning of “why,” but many of my cues with Finn revolve around giving him information as to what and why I am doing something. In my experience, it seems to help him greatly.
A bit more about the “why” part.
Finn’s biggest triggers are people entering his space, people walking behind him, and people reaching for him/touching him in any way/picking him up. I do my best to bring as much predictability to any scenario that resembles any of those triggers. Predictability comes in the form of me adding cues. For example, the cue “I’m going this way” (while pointing in that particular direction) tells Finn what direction I’m walking in the house if he happens to be nearby. This gives him the information that I’m simply walking in his direction to get to another destination, and that I’m not coming after him. This is especially useful if he’s in a tight space such as the hallway and I need to get past him. When I give him this cue, I can literally see the relief in his face…I am convinced that with his history he assumes anyone who is walking in his direction is coming after him.
Another cue I use is “wanna trade spaces?” which tells Finn I will trade the physical space he is in with mine for a moment. I use this mainly when I want him to enter a room I am in, but he’s not comfortable entering it with me in there already. I typically use this when I need him to come into my office to join me and Scout because I need to close the door. I give him the cue before I walk out of the room towards him, and once he enters the room I follow and close the door, and then I go back to what I was doing (I’m usually working at my desk). It’s an arrangement that works well, and gets him where I need him to be without needing to touch him.
I know you’re probably wondering how the heck Finn knows what “wanna trade spaces” means. For us English speaking folks, it makes sense, but dogs need to learn the meaning. The actual words themselves are irrelevant, but when paired with a behavior or event, a dog will eventually make the connection.
When you add a cue, you add it right before the behavior occurs. Over time, the dog begins to associate the cue with the behavior, and responds. Think of it as “naming” a behavior. If you talk to your dog you are likely giving similar cues without knowing it (wanna go for a walk? wanna eat?). When you are consistent with your cues, your dog will respond to the subsequent behaviors faster over time (such as running to the door in anticipation of a walk). Those faster responses were exactly what I was striving for, as I needed Finn to be more manageable in day to day life. When you can’t touch a dog and they don’t have any skills in place, getting them to do what you need them to do can get tricky. And so I named every single thing I do with him, from putting his leash to picking him up, to going outside to coming back in, to crossing the street on walks to waiting as I toss out a poop bag, and on and on. He’s a smart dog who caught on quickly, and after about 3 weeks our day to day routine has been much easier for it.
Finn is beginning to settle in and get used to his routine. His days of not eating due to stress are long behind him, and I’ve expanded his day to include some enrichment games which he really enjoys. My husband and I can sit on the couch near him, without him moving away. His body language is much more relaxed and less tense, and sometimes we find him sleeping with his legs in the air. Watching him unfold has been truly enjoyable, and I look forward to sharing more!