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Reliability Deficiency Type C: Poisoned Cues

Poisoned cues are a concept introduced to the animal training community by Jess Rosales-Ruiz, Ph.D. To better understand what a poisoned cue is, an understanding...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Jul 14th 2010

Poisoned cues are a concept introduced to the animal training community by Jess Rosales-Ruiz, Ph.D.

To better understand what a poisoned cue is, an understanding of various types of reinforcers, what cues are, how they’re taught, and how the teaching method for a cue effects an animal’s perception of the cue is necessary.

There are three levels of reinforcement.

Primary reinforcement: According to Karen Pryor, in her most recent publication

    Reaching the Animal Mind

, a primary reinforcer is anything the animal desires badly enough to work for. This can be food, water, or an opportunity to engage with a favorite toy or individual. Karen’s definition differs from a traditional definition of primary reinforcer which may be “anything the animal needs to survive or reproduce,” (air, water, sex, food, etc.).

Secondary reinforcement: A secondary reinforcer is any stimulus which is not intrinsically valuable to the learner but gains value through repeated pairing with a primary reinforcer. A clicker is an example of a secondary or conditioned reinforcer – there is nothing inherently interesting about the sound of a clicker to a dog, the clicker gains value through repeated and consistent (1:1 ratio) with a primary reinforcer (most often, food).

Tertiary reinforcement: This is where things might get confusing. If a secondary reinforcer (a clicker) predicts a primary reinforcer (food), a tertiary reinforcer predicts the aforementioned sequence. A cue taught through positive reinforcement functions as a tertiary reinforcer. The cue predicts the click which predicts the food. In essence, three levels of reinforcement are occurring – the cue itself is a reinforcer, followed by the reinforcement of the click and the eventual primary reinforcement of food or play.

One of the best parts about clicker training is that cues taught with positive reinforcement can reinforce other cues. In fact, this is the nature of a behavior chain, where one cue reinforces the previous cue with a secondary reinforcement (followed by a primary reinforcement) completing the sequence.

For instance, if I make a behavior chain that includes five behaviors – sit, down, nose touch to hand target, go settle on a mat, recall; the cue for each behavior in the chain reinforces the previous behavior. I would time each of my cues “as a click” (when the dog is doing the previous behavior) and would only click and follow with a primary reinforcement the last behavior in the chain (recall).

In essence, rally obedience courses and agility runs are nothing more than fancy behavior chains.

In this great article from Karen Pryor, Karen explains why clicks and corrections don’t mix.

When we reinforce correct responses and “correct” (punish) incorrect responses to a cue, the cue no longer functions as a tertiary reinforcer. Sometimes the dog gets “something yummy” and sometimes the dog gets “something painful or uncomfortable.” The cue is no longer a “reinforcement green light” but is instead ambiguous and may be seen as a threat.

According to Karen:

Even if the behavior was trained entirely with positive reinforcement, if one now clicks for correct behavior following a discriminator ( a cue, command, or signal) but also gives aversive correction (leash pop, verbal reprimand, etc.) for incorrect behavior following that same stimulus, the stimulus immediately loses its value as a positive reinforcer. It is, at best, ambiguous in terms of reinforcement. It is not a click. It no longer automatically triggers the positive emotions associated with conditioned positive reinforcers. It can no longer be predictably used inside a chain to reinforce previous behavior…

The shift becomes visible in the learner’s attitude, which switches from attentive eagerness to reluctance, often with visible manifestations of stress. Even though successful response to a given discriminative stimulus is still followed by reward, if failure is now followed by punishment, you have made that discriminative stimulus ambiguous in terms of predictable outcome. It is no longer ‘safe.’ You have poisoned your cue.

You would be less likely to show up for work each day if 10% of the time you showed up, instead of receiving a paycheck for your efforts, you received an electric shock.

When cues are taught with positive reinforcement, they are viewed by the learner as a “green light,” – it is safe and advisable to move forward. When cues are taught with a combination of positive reinforcement and aversives, the cues are ambiguous – they are no longer a “green light means go” signal but instead become a “Yield: Proceed with Caution” signal.

In the above article from Karen, a reader submits the following for consideration:

Avoidance is a strong survival response, so can win-out over attraction. If the cue is only associated with good things, attraction results. If the cue is associated with both good and bad (aversive) things, avoidance can result… despite the possibility of good things happening.

If 99 good things happen in your day, then 1 bad thing happens, what do you tend to remember most when you go to sleep that night, and what emotion do you feel? If it’s something you really don’t want to happen again, how much thought do you put into how you can avoid it, even if it means you miss out on some good things? Does it cause conflict, even if it you feel it was a result of something you chose to do or not do?

Once a cue is poisoned, it cannot be repaired. Instead, the behavior must be retrained and a new cue added to the behavior. Don’t be disheartened, if your dog learned the behavior once, capturing or shaping the behavior will proceed more quickly this time and you will be able to reattach a new, clean cue to the behavior.

For more on poisoned cues, check out Poisoned Cues: The Case of the Stubborn Dog, by Rebecca Lynch of K9 Clicking.