THE most important cue

Well, maybe this is 1 of 2 of THE most important cues your dog should understand: her release cue (commonly people use “Ok”) and, of course, the recall. I want to talk about the release cue, though, because all too often I encounter dogs who don’t clearly understand this word.

Why is the release cue important? The release cue is “the magic word” that grants the dog permission to take what he wants. The release cue is the key to training your dog to stay. Training a dog to stay is all about making it clear when the dog CAN go! Want to know a secret? I don’t train the cue “Stay”. I don’t need it. I use a position cue (sit/stand/down) if I want the dog to stay in place. However, I have excellent stays on all of my dogs. That’s because they totally understand when it’s OK to go 🙂 An added bonus I’ve found is that the dogs transfer this idea of restraining themselves to various situations. This could be problematic if you didn’t realize your dog was offering a Stay and then manually moved your dog. So, stay aware and recognize if your dog is offering to stay. Keep it consistent and unambiguous by freeing them from that obligation by giving your release cue, “Break!” (or whatever cue you use).

It’s been common practice to train this using “It’s Yer Choice” (coined by S. Garrett), though, these days modern training is starting to turn away from this static impulse control game. It’s accidentally caused dogs to get conflicted about when they DO have permission to let loose/grab the item/etc. I still like that game, but I’ve always taught it with a little twist.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, the game goes like this: You hold a piece of food in your hand. When your dog rushes to grab it, you close it inside a fist. I like to use the analogy of your hand being a “wallet” and the food being “the money” and when your dog tries to swipe a morsel, access is denied. The action of trying to take the treat causes the wallet to close. Nothing is said and treat is not relinquished no matter what the dog tries (usually a variety of pawing, gnawing, nuzzling). Once the dog desists (like backing away, maybe sitting or lying down), the “wallet” is opened again. Your fist opening with a treat on the palm again is reinforcement for the previous behavior.

The fact that the money is on the table, even though it has not been collected, is, in fact, reinforcing. It’s also so tempting that the dog often springs forward to grab the “money”. But, is again met with a closed fist. This game is repeated until you can pick up that piece of food off of your open palm and deliver it to your dog’s mouth. Do you get the idea? The dog cannot grab the money off the table, but, you are willing to deliver payment directly into the dog’s “pocket” (aka mouth;) The dog learns to exhibit self control in the face of that delicious prize instead of mugging you.*

The point where I train this differently is shortly after the dog starts to show some self-control. Before the dog gets too “stuck” holding himself back, the dog is given his release word. Upon hearing “OK”, the dog should spring forward with confidence to grab his prize off of your palm. Many dogs won’t, because we just confused them with the previous steps of IYC outlined above, OR, because the dog isn’t clear about what the release word means.

The release word means you can have it puppy! You may go through the door (out of the crate/car/gate). You can break your position, eat the food or chase the toy. During this training stage, the dog must strongly desire the item (food or toy) to be able to effectively work on impulse control AND the dog should be given that item via your magic word frequently. Release while he is in the throes of desire after demonstrating just a little bit of self control. If you let the dog settle in too much to the self restraint role, are we not teaching suppression? Suppressing behavior rarely works long term or for the optimum. Instead, while the dog really wants something, you can build value for YOU and your magic word and channel all that built up excitement of the potential reward into your release cue.  The game is fun when your dog is able to enjoy relief from the pressure of exhibiting self control through your release cue. Your words matter and are totally worth listening to!

After the initial training stages, your release word becomes the key to getting access to wonderful things that your dog really wants. Ask your dog to sit, release him and let him go! The release cue reinforces whatever the dog was doing. The release is rewarded by going, by relief from the pressure of staying, and hopefully with an awesome prize, too, some of the time.

Training your dog to take what he wants by demonstrating self-control empowers both of you. You can turn an amount of responsibility over to your dog and most creatures really appreciate that! Executed well, this can eliminate a lot of gray area around things your dog wants really badly. Your dog will look to you to get what he wants rather than try to get around you when you aren’t looking. You hold the keys and can give your dog what he wants rather than approaching this from the flip side telling your dog to “Leave it!” or nagging your dog with “No!” and “Stop” all the time. Of course, you must still be logical about what you put in front of your dog. Just like you wouldn’t leave your hungry toddler alone with a table full of cookies and cakes and expect him not to eat. But, if you’re thoughtful and do the groundwork, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when your dog asks, “Please?” rather than tune you out completely.

There is usually another way to do most things. In light of developments where trainers are coming up with ways to train without any coercion, here’s a link to Chirag Patel talking about the bucket game during this thought-provoking podcast on ATA.

*If your dog is trying to climb you like a tree to get a toy that you are waving all around (but blocking from the dog being able to grab), you can extend this game to include a default sit (or down).


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