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A Swinging Pair: Using Paired Cues to Accelerate Learning

Train two behaviors at once? Teach two cues simultaneously? How? Why? Teaching certain cues in pairs can speed up the learning process, as well as teaching a dog a concept that it can apply to new learning.

Choose two behaviors that are opposites: step forward/step backward, over/under, and paw/nose, for example. Click and treat them alternately so that the very clear difference between the behaviors, and their cues, becomes one more piece of information for the dog. Teaching a dog discrimination by training paired, opposite behaviors moves learning along so quickly, you may find yourself establishing behaviors and cues in a single session.

To do so, however, you need to capture or provoke two distinct behaviors. Take the paired, opposite behaviors of bark/quiet. To put both on cue quickly and simultaneously, try the following steps:

  • Begin when the dog is barking. It is handy to have a barky dog. If you need to provoke the behavior, however, a knock on a nearby door or table will usually set off a barker.
  • Click, give a treat, and, as the dog is swallowing, startle the dog by making a "Stop" hand signal in front of its face (or any other signal that you know will focus the dog's attention.) The dog will react with a little sign of surprise; perhaps an anxious look, maybe a slight calming signal such as a head turn.
  • At that instant of response in surprise, click and again treat. (Hold treats in your clicker hand, for this stunt.) The dog eats the treat.
  • Now wait until the dog barks again (or provoke a bark if necessary). Click, treat, hand gesture, click, treat; repeat.

So, what's happening? You are provoking the behavior of barking (or, better yet, the dog is barking spontaneously), and you are reinforcing it. You are then provoking another, opposite behavior, and reinforcing it. There are no cues established yet; just two opposite behaviors which you are clicking and treating alternately.

Note that you are not alternately clicking and reinforcing barking and the absence of barking. Paired cues work not as present/absent cues, but do this/do that cues. In the case of Bark/Quiet, you are reinforcing barking and its opposite, the tiny response of surprise however your dog expressed it-a flinch or head turn or lifted ear-that you provoked with a "Stop" hand signal. The dog may have perceived it as "Close my mouth" or "Turn my head" (with mouth closed as part of it) or "Duck" or "Look worried" or whatever it was doing that was marked by the click and earned the reinforcer. But it definitely did something, and you clicked that something.

What's next?

  • When two behaviors begin to look the least little bit operant, that is, you see the dog beginning to do them with some awareness, then add the verbal cue "Bark!" to the bark.
  • Use the hand signal as a cue for "Look silently" or "Mouth shut."
  • Build duration on the anti-bark behavior (whatever your dog has offered and you have reinforced).
  • Transfer the hand signal to a verbal cue, "Quiet," or "Silence, please," whenever the behavior and cue are well established.

At ClickerExpo Chicago, Ken Ramirez, director of training at the Shedd Aquarium, explained how the marine mammal trainers routinely use paired cues to give instructions to the dolphins and whales. He pointed out that the first pair may be slower to train, but by the time the animal has learned three pairs, it gains the concept of alternates: Do this on A, do that on B. From that point forward you can teach new pairs, any pair, quite quickly. If you were training for competition, you might select for the first pair of behaviors something easily done around the house, 'come forward/go backward' perhaps, so that the concept of A, then B, becomes well-learned by the dog. Then when you need the dog to respond to paired cues in an important situation, you can build on his established understanding.

Other behaviors that are learned well in conjunction are come forward/go backward and nose/paw (touch a target with the nose, touch it with the paw). You can teach big/little (teach the dog to target a big object and a little object) or black/white. Over/under also works well. Left/right are extremely useful in agility and freestyle. Kay Laurence's students in England train a lot of paired cues to use as parts of other behaviors as they design free-style routines, teach scent work, service work, and in any kind of behavior to be done at a distance. (By the way, Kay is of the opinion that dogs have trouble hearing the difference between "left" and "right" in English. She uses tick-tock or pink-blue or some other pairing of cues. Whether this is vital or not for the dog, it is good for the trainer as being forced to remember something non-obvious helps you to keep your cues consistent and accurate.)

If you have a bunch of paired cues that are nice and clean, try stacking them. "Paw" (not "nose") plus "left" (not "right") plus "push" (not "touch") equals a dog that will go out and tap the left-hand target hard enough to knock it down.

And, pairedcues [at] clickertraining [dot] com (send us a note) to let us know how your paired-cue training sessions are going!

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.


I am trying to think of how to use this in training with a collie for sheepdog trialing. Has anyone out there done this yet? Some of the methods used in this field are SO traditional, but I am new to both trialing and clicker training so any advice would be great for me and my poor dog!

How I used paired cues

To teach "go left" "go right" (for gundog work) "back up" "forward" and to lie down on either side. Even for a fairly recent crossover trainer and dog it works very well. I even got a nice "stand" by pairing it with the cue "stepstep" - she tended to step on her front legs when I wanted a statue still stand for conformation. By using this technique I got both the stand on cue and the step step, which is actually a great help if I need to reposition her a bit during a judges exam.
Christina and Anuke the Ches

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