CLARITY: cues, announcements … and prepositions!

An addendum to Chai’s July 3 diary entry

Announcements versus cues

Announcements is a term I use to distinguish certain verbal expressions directed at dogs from the term cue: a cue is the opportunity for the dog to do a certain behavior in order to earn a reinforcer (or, if you are of a different philosophy, you could say a cue is telling the dog what they “have to” do – that is, it’s a “command”). Whatever philosphy you subscribe to, a cue is all about the dog’s actions. Sit, for example, is a cue for the dog to move their butt floorwards. Come is a cue for the dog to run towards you.

An announcement is information about what is going to happen “to” the dog. It is not telling the dog what to do. For example in radius training, I use an opportunity cost announcement if the dog oversteps their radius. It means “We are going the other way now!”

When I brush Chai, I’ll announce that I’m going to do so by saying “Brush.” I’m not asking. This is not cooperative care. (She doesn’t need it to be.) When I dremel Game’s nails or clip Chai’s nails, I’ll announce “Claws.” Again, I am not asking the dog to do anything – I am letting them know what is about to happen before I do it. An announcement is me informing my dog about what I am going to do next. It is not a question but information. Anytime I announce something, it is going to happen right after independently of the dog’s thoughts or feelings about it – just like the sun will rise every day whether I want it to or not.

Today (that is on July 3, 2023, when I drafted this post), after having used “collar,” “harness” and “leash” every time before taking one of the three objects off or putting them on Chai, I’ve started adding prepositions. “Collar onnnn!” means I’m about to put a collar on Chai. “Collar offff!” means I’ll take it off. I stress the preposition in my announcement because it is the part that is new for her. “Leash onnnn!” means the leash will be clipped to the harness and is, like a click, always followed by a treat (to avoid creating aversion to being leashed). “Leash offff!” means I will unclip the leash. It will either be followed by off-leash freedom or by “With me!” (leash clipped to collar; informal heeling). No treats when equipment comes off.

The fourth object I’m using our new prepositions for is Chai’s sweater. Remember how I was planning on taking her to Pride but then didn’t? I got her a Pride sweater anyways (yes, it has happened and there’s no denying it: I’m one of these people who dress up dogs now). It was 50% off and cute, and I want her to get used to wearing things such as service dog vests or “clothing” she might need to wear after surgery one day. So we also work on normalizing “Sweater onnnn!” and “Sweater offff!” Chai is doing perfectly fine with wearing it for short periods of time – the startle of the store person trying to stuff her into a sweater without asking permission had no repercussions. (I did not buy the sweater there, by the way.)

Here’s a brief compilation of onnn-s and offff-s I (that is future me on October 30, 2023) just recorded to illustrate this concept before I release this post I drafted in July:

In the video above, note how certain announcements – in this example only “harness onnn” – have the potential to turn into a cue (Chai can learn to push her head through the harness loop voluntarily). Others, like leash onnn or offf, can always only be announcements since Chai can’t put her leash on or take it off herself.

Below is another brief clip from today, showing an example of something that (A) will always be an announcement (“Brush” in the example: Chai can’t brush herself) and (B) won’t ever have a preposition because it wouldn’t make sense:

What is the point of announcing things? Why don’t you just DO them?

I want to maximize agency (where it matters for the dog in front of me) and clarity (where there can’t be agency or where agency is less important for the dog in front of me). When it comes to training, I want the dog to opt in. When it comes to grooming, I want opting in (cooperative care) if the dog doesn’t like being groomed – otherwise, I’ll just do an announcement. Why? Because teaching cooperative care is time consuming and it not a personal passion of mine. Therefore, as long as the dog in front of me doesn’t mind, I’ll announce rather than ask.

While announcements aren’t questions, they still give me valuable information

While the announcement isn’t a question (I’m not asking, “Would you like me to brush you?” but telling Chai, “I am going to brush you now!” in the video above), it still comes with valuable information: I tell Chai that I will brush her before I sit down next to her on the couch. (I always and only brush her on the couch.) This gives her time to leave. If she left, I would gain important information about how she feels about being brushed. As I am brushing her, I am not cutting off her exit route/cornering her. Unlike with “leash on” and “harness on,” there is NO treat after grooming behaviors. So Chai gains nothing by allowing me to groom her. She could walk away – but she doesn’t.

Here’s a COMPLETELY taken-out-of-context quote by M.E. O’Brien that, to my great amusement, fits very well: “If one cannot easily leave, one cannot choose to stay.” Dog training really is a metaphor for life. And that’s why I use announcements rather than “just do the thing.”

Leave a Reply