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Techniques Conditioning > Cue

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



A cue is a stimulus that leads to desired action. It is put into place by the use of pairing, in particular:

  • Pairing a reward with the action.
  • Pairing the cue with the reward and action.
  • Fading away the reward so the cue leads to the action without the need for reward.

The reward may be paired with the action and later the cue added, or the pairing may all be done together.

Ways to introduce a cue include:

  • Repeatedly introduce the cue just as the action is beginning.
  • Introduce the cue gradually, for example alternating the cue with a lure.
  • Use the cue when the subject naturally performs the action of their own accord.

Once the subject has the basic idea, vary the place and time where the training takes place, otherwise they may think it is something to be done only in very particular circumstances.

Cues are typically single words, although they can be phrases. They can also be hand signals, head movements or any other communication that the subject understands as a request for a distinct action.

It is a good idea to ensure cues for different actions are clearly distinct from one another, in order to avoid confusion. Each cue should also be used clearly and for the single purpose of causing one desired action.

Cues can be paired with one another, for example saying 'sit' may be paired with a raised finger. Initially both will be used, but before long just the finger will be sufficient. Over time, cues (particularly visual ones) can be reduced and made smaller, so even a slight movement of a finger may be used to ask the subject to sit.


A dog trainer gives a dog food and says 'sit' when it sits. The dog learns to sit when it hears 'sit' and expected food. The food reward is gradually given less and less often until the cue 'sit' reliably leads to the dog sitting.

A parent calls 'dinner!' in a loud voice. The whole family knows that this means 'come now, not later' and always turn up on time.


Traditional training often starts with a cue. 'Sit' says the trainer and seems to expect the dog to know what to do. When there is no appropriate response, the trainer keeps repeating the cue and may even get angry. Meanwhile the subject is baffled as to what the trainer wants. Even if the trainer pushes the dog into a sit and it learns to pair sitting with the cue, it may still only be doing so to avoid being pushed down.

 Conditioning introduces cues later, first pairing the action with the reward and only later pairing the cue with the action.

Establishing cues are often the primary purpose of conditioning, such that they may be used as commands. The reliability of the cues, for example calling a dog, will depend not only on the effectiveness of the conditioning but also the wilfulness of the dog. Some subjects and some cues are easy to teach, while others may be frustratingly unreliable.

The potential number and complexity of cues will vary with the intelligence of the subject. Some animals can be taught to perform a sequence of actions on a single cue, or may understand compound cues such as 'lie down and roll over'. Other subjects may find such complexity too much to handle.

Cues are also known by various other words, including 'command', 'prompt', 'signal' and 'trigger'. The classic name for a cue is a Conditioned Stimulus. In other words, it is a stimulus that leads to the desired action that is put in place by the act of conditioning.

See also

Conditioning, Stimulus


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