Downeast Dog News

Cues, Miscues, Missed Cues

What's up with cues?
By | Jan 01, 2018

- The school bus way ahead of me had his right blinker on, slowed down, and pulled over to the side of the road. Just as I was about to pass by him at 45mph, he pulled out in front of me, his right blinker still activated. I had to make a quick move to avoid being run into. The driver had miscued his intentions.

- Jessie, my friend’s elderly dog, made an enthusiastic and risky but unsuccessful attempt to jump straight up onto the table at which we were standing. We had just finished clipping her nails atop the table (she loves it), and Jessie thought her owner was inviting her back up when she briefly tapped the table for emphasis as we were chatting. Miscue.

- I asked Astro to circle around me once then come into front position. He circled again without coming into front. He hadn’t heard “front.” Missed cue.

- Many years ago, a man wanted to show me how beautifully his German Shepherd had learned to come into heel position. He yelled “heel!” very sternly, then stood by his dog at heel position (yes, seriously). Hmm… I’m not sure where that falls in the “cue matrix.”

Life is full of cues, miscues, and missed cues! Even on the human side of things, non-verbal communication occurs all the time. Driving is a realm replete with them; we rely on traffic lights, car indicator lights, lines in the road, road signs, and all those other pieces of information to let us know where to be, how fast to go, and what to expect. Imagine if all that were taken away: chaos would ensue!


A cue is information about what is coming next.

A miscue is when the wrong cue is provided.

A missed cue is a cue that is not perceived.

A cue is a predictor, a tip-off, that a specific behavior will follow. In dog training, if the behavior doesn’t happen, we have to look to ourselves to figure out why. Does the dog truly understand the cue? Are you sure you know what the cue is? Are there other things that provide information to the dog?

At PupStart, my day school for puppies, a 14 week old puppy had learned to “auto-sit” at home. In theory, “auto-sit” seems great: dog sits at the door, sits for a treat, sits for attention, sits for practically everything. Her owner had put a lot of time and effort into teaching Tassie this behavior. There was a problem, though: in Tassie’s mind, the cue to sit was everywhere, like a red light every few feet. When we started working with her, any hesitation in engagement would elicit a sit from her. Her auto-sit was preventing her from thinking, from problem-solving, and from learning. It was an easy answer, and one that got paid for a lot at home, so, of course, she offered it as much as possible.

As you interact with your dog, how are you asking him to do what you want him to do? Verbally? Non-verbally? Are you unintentionally asking him to do things you don’t want him to do? Pay attention to your behavior when you are interacting with your pup - it's amazing what we can learn!

“Beginner trainers focus primarily on the behavior of the dog. 'Super trainers' focus on their own behavior as much as they focus on the behavior of the dog. Super trainers recognize that changes in their own behavior create changes in the dog’s behavior.” Diane Balkavich