From Clues to Cues: How Cues Evolve Out of the Shaping Process

Cues evolve out of the shaping process, or rather, the most meaningful and useful cues that you choose should evolve out of the process of shaping behavior. This core insight helps Alexandra Kurland be very thoughtful about her selection of cues. To understand why, remember that the conventional wisdom and practice are that a behavior is “put on cue” after your learner can perform it reliably, accurately, and so on. While that convention is highly useful, it hides a powerful reality. Cues—information that helps an animal learn what earns reinforcement—are often being communicated to your learner unintentionally in the process of shaping behavior.

Here’s a simple example: When Alexandra clicks and reinforces her horse for putting his ears forward, where is she looking? Inevitably, at his ears. In contrast, when Alexandra wants her horse to back up, where is she looking? Inevitably, at his chest.

The horse will pick up on these differences naturally and try to use them as clues in the puzzle of working out what will earn reinforcement. Alexandra can use this knowledge to intentionally amplify the informational value of the clue. In fact, if she chooses eye direction to cue the behavior (rather than, say, a hand cue), she simplifies and amplifies the learning. On the other hand, if Alexandra is unaware of where her gaze falls, her horse must spend time and energy to sort out the information conflict. It's as if Alexandra had to learn that you greeting her with a big, broad smile at ClickerExpo does not mean that you are happy to see her. She could eventually learn that, but it wouldn't be easy.

In this presentation, we look in detail at how it works—cues evolving out of the shaping process—and how the method will help you improve your training efficiency and the quality of your learner's training.

How do you spot the clues that your learner is using so that you can turn them into deliberate cues? How do you use the learner’s keen observation skills to your advantage to help you:

  • develop good stimulus control over individual behaviors?
  • transfer your cues to performance cues?
  • become subtler and light in your cues?
  • build complex sequences of behavior?

Watch this Session to learn how to turn your clues into cues and help your animal learn.

Alexandra Kurland

Alexandra Kurland is a graduate of Cornell University where she specialized in animal behavior. She began teaching in the early 1980s. Her area of particular interest is the development of a horse’s balance: physical and emotional. Helping horses stay sound throughout a long lifetime is the goal. The result are beautiful horses that feel like heaven to ride.

In 1998, Alexandra launched the rapidly growing field of clicker training for horses with the publication of her first book, Clicker Training for Your Horse. She teaches clicker training geared to any horse need or sport—including developing a gentle and companionable riding horse, halter-training foals, training advanced performance horses, and reforming difficult and unmanageable horses. Alexandra travels widely, presenting clicker training seminars in the US, the UK, and Europe.

Alexandra has written The Click That Teaches: A Step–By–Step Guide in Pictures and has also produced The Click That Teaches DVD lesson series and an online course. People outside the horse community may know her best through her weekly Equiosity podcast.