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Be Careful What You Train Reshaping a Cue

“Lilly!” I said sternly as I pointed to the living room “Out of the kitchen!”

Lilly is a Siberian Husky with ninja stealth capabilities. Whenever I was cooking or baking in the kitchen, she wanted to be near me, but that often meant that she’d sneak up on me while I was putting something in the oven, opening the fridge and trying to get around.

I stepped on her tail a couple of times but she had her revenge when I was walking to the counter and tripped over her, resulting in a tray of warm sugar cookies spilling all over the floor. From that point on, I made it a rule to keep her out of the kitchen whenever I was in there.

“LILLY!” I shouted when she snuck back in. I pointed to the living room again and scolded in frustration “OUT of the KITCHEN!”
She raced out of the kitchen and onto her favorite spot on the couch. To Lilly, this had become a very fun game. To me, it was a frustrating sequence of try to get around in the kitchen without having my Siberian Husky accidentally kill me.

A few months has gone by and Lilly doesn’t really go into the kitchen much anymore. When she does, all I have to say is “Out of the kitchen” and she obeys.

Now for a lot of dog owners, that may seem like an amazing feat, but I accidentally trained a behavior that I didn’t want.

The Problem – What I Trained

Whenever I’m in the kitchen with Lilly, she will run to her spot on the couch if I point.

  • If I point while asking her to go to her crate, she runs to the couch.
  • If I point when I ask her to look at something, she runs to the couch.
  • If I point at her food when I want her to eat, she runs to the couch.

BUT if I point to something in the living room, dining room, bedroom, front room, when we’re outside, or any other place other than the kitchen, then she will go where I want her to and inspect what I ask her too.

It’s only in the kitchen that the dreaded point has become a cue for ‘go to the couch’. It became obvious that I needed to find a way to change the cue and become much more mindful of how I was using my body language when working with Lilly.

The Solution – How I Untrained It

First, I gave “Out of the Kitchen” a different cue. She already knows this verbally, so it doesn’t really need a cue. But I thought it made sense to give it a different one anyway since I wanted to reshape the meaning of the point.

So, I started to say Out of the Kitchen with an open hand held out in front of me, the same way you might hold it out if you were going to shake someone’s hand. At first she was a little confused, but after a few click and treats, she caught on pretty fast.

Next, I sat down on the floor in the living room right near the kitchen, put a treat on the floor and pointed at it. As she approached it, I clicked and treated and we repeated this a few times. Once she got it, we tried it in the kitchen and of course, she did just fine. But the moment I stood up in the kitchen to point – BAM! – she went running to her spot.

This was going to take a little more work then I had originally thought.

So, I started from the beginning and slowly worked to a standing position.

So the steps were like this:

  1. Sit on floor, point to treat and click and treat when she approached.
  2. Kneel on the floor, point to treat and click and treat when she approached.
  3. Stand up, bend at a 90 degree angle from the waist, point to treat and click and treat when she approached.
  4. Stand up, bend at a 45 degree angle from the waist, point to treat and click and treat when she approached.
  5. Stand up completely, point at treat and click and treat when she approached.

Level 4 was the hardest for her. She was no longer running to the couch, but she did take a few steps back, bark and get frustrated. It took about 3 days and several training sessions on this alone to get her to understand what I wanted when we came to level 4. But, by the time she got it, level 5 was easy for her.

So now, I have a dog that looks at where I’m pointing too when we’re in the kitchen, instead of running to her couch each time.

Conclusion

Even though Lilly and I were both successful at reshaping the point, life would have been a lot easier on both of us if I hadn’t poisoned the cue in the first place. Recreating the meaning of a cue is a lot harder than giving it the wrong meaning in the first place.

Of course, it’s not Lilly’s fault that the reshaping took so long. It’s my fault because I should have known better.

However, on a positive note, I now know how to reshape a cue and as a result, so do you!

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