Offered Vs Cued Sessions
Updated: Jun 12
I work with a lot of students who really struggle with duration behaviors and getting behaviors on cue. Their dogs love offering behaviors and jumping from behavior to behavior as they try to stumble upon the one thing that will get the reward.
Offered behaviors are great. I wholeheartedly believe that when you have a behavior that the dog is purposefully offering to get a reward, then the foundation for that behavior is strong. They are more likely to hold up as we start making the conditions around that behavior harder and eventually get it into a trial setting.
However, at some point, we also need to get things on cue and teach the dogs to wait for that cue. This is especially important in obedience where eventually our silence has to mean the dog is on the right track. We want the dog to think they are amazing even when they don't hear anything from us. Compare that to thinking our silence means they are wrong and should try something else! Even in agility, we want the dog following our cues, not just offering behaviors at will. Well, at least if you ever want to qualify.
There are lots of things we can do to help make that leap from an offered behavior to a cued behavior and then to the dog actually waiting for our cues. I have written more than one blog post on this subject and you might also want to check out some of the shaping classes offered by various instructors at FDSA!
One easy change to make is simply how we structure our sessions. The need to have clear "shaping" sessions vs "cued" sessions. The dog needs to know exactly when it's appropriate to offer behaviors on their own and when it's appropriate to keep duration and wait for the next cue. There is no one way to do this.
For my dogs, I tend to do a lot of my shaping/offered sessions sitting on the ground or kneeling. If I'm standing I try to have my hands at my stomach or behind my back. I also start my marking/rewarding fairly quickly. If I want to manipulate the starting position of my dog I'll use the reward placement by tossing a cookie or luring the dog to the starting position and/or use props to make it likely. My silence means go ahead, offer a behavior!
Let's say I'm working on the dog going from a down to a sit. If I were to do this in a free shaping session, I would start the dog in a down position by luring them into a down (or into a partial down) and I would most likely be sitting on the floor. If I stood, I would then have my hands behind my back or on my stomach. I would look for any stretching of the neck up or small push of the front end and I would mark that movement. I would likely choose to use the reward cookie to lure the dog up into a sit, but then I would start the next repetition by luring the dog back into a down position instead of cuing that down. That lured start and lack of cue makes it very clear they can offer a behavior right away.
Here is Speck's 2nd lesson with this skill. I also purposefully use a slightly taller platform to make it more likely he will offer pushing back in a sit and not stay in a "down" that I'm half way luring. Speck is clear that after eating his cookie he can offer a behavior to try and get a reward.
Cued Sessions/Duration Building
But if I'm doing a cued session I would start the session differently. I start with giving my dog a cue of what I actually want them to be doing in that moment. That might be telling them to heel, or go to mat, or in the example of learning down to sit, I would verbally cue the "down" behavior. If I didn't want to worry about that down I could still use a cookie to lure the down as I verbally cue the down start position.
Once given a cue, the dog should do that behavior until given another cue or until given their reinforcement. And once again that reinforcement loop will structure the dog for the next rep. My silence means keep up what you're doing, wait for a cue or reinforcement.
Sometimes I won't have a cue for the start behavior and while that can make it a bit trickier, that's ok too! I could add a "wait" cue to help the dog out. Or frequently I will also add other context clues that help them realize that we are in a duration building session. Doing "slow cookie" delivery, or zen hand will frequently get my dogs to freeze up and offer focus on me as they wait for me to cue the reward or cue another behavior.
Often with more known behaviors I'm also usually standing in a more formal posture. My hands are at my side or maybe my left hand is at my stomach for my heeling picture.
Here little Grace was working on waiting for her cue to stand. I verbally cue her start position, sit, along with her lure and I help her out a lot with rewarding this waiting position a ton, and doing some chin rests. While she makes a few mistakes, she's getting the idea that this is not an offered session:
And here is a video I took for fun to show how I can move Zumi between offered and cued behaviors in the same session. This is not something I usually do without mixing up props or doing very different behaviors, but I thought I would test to see how well she knows that structure! My plan was stand to down, offered and cued, and then back again. Zumi decided bows were more fun to offer than downs, so I went with it!:
There's no real right or wrong answer to how YOU make the sessions different. We just want our dogs confident with our expectations for that session!