Cue Happy Please!

SunnySomething that has helped me with my fearful dog Sunny has been to create ‘cues’ which change how he’s feeling. Most dog owners do this with their dogs all the time, ‘wanna go for a walk!?’, ‘want a cookie?’ probably at the very least cause a dog to perk up its ears and pay attention. If walks and cookies are enjoyable for the dog they will likely even display behaviors that could be interpreted as a ‘happy’ or ‘excited’ when those questions are asked.

Many of the verbal cues I use with Sunny that seem to change how he feels came about in the course of our daily lives. Telling Sunny to ‘go get your friz!’ was positively reinforced by the play that followed my request. I use this cue to interrupt or distract him if he’s getting upset about something, a car or cyclist passing by, or a visitor arriving at the house. When asked to get his frisbee he not only becomes a happier dog, the play that follows, often in the presence of a trigger, helps to counter condition him to it. My husband, who Sunny still wishes lived somewhere else, can say it and will get the same happy response, it’s one of the few ways he is able to get a positive emotional response from Sunny.

I have other cues or conditioned stimuli that have a positive emotional response associated with them. If I wave my hands in the air above my head when I am inside the house and Sunny is outside looking in, he will wag his tail in a happy way. I use the tone of my voice to get him to wiggle and wag when I talk to him, especially when I want to interrupt a behavior I believe is being caused by fear.

It is important to think of how you use cues for emotional responses carefully. I never tell Sunny to get his frisbee if there are no frisbees to be had or if he physically cannot go after it, while walking on a leash for example, it would soon lose it’s value. If a particular cue works in one place but not another, I don’t push it, again I don’t want it to lose it’s value. I tried to use ‘a friend!’ cue to get Sunny less worried about seeing new people (it worked great with my non-fearful cocker to get her to stop barking at guests at the door) but even though paired with super treats his reaction to people is so intense that if I say ‘a friend!’ he visibly prepares to be frightened. Instead of a cue to be happy I created a predictor to be scared!

Think about the things that you do or say that make your dog happy and then look at how you can use them to change how your dog feels in situations which provoke a fearful response.


12 comments so far

  1. Melfr99 on

    I do the same thing with Daisy! Great post and very helpful to other owners of fearful dogs like ours!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond! It is something we all do and I’m thinking that it’s something that new owners to fearful dogs could pay more attention to.

  2. barrie on

    Since reading Reaching The Animal Mind I have become obsessed with the idea of cues becoming secondary reinforcers in and of themselves. When Fancy was so nervous about people while we were waiting at the gate at agility trials I would have her do a bunch of silly cued behaviors to distract her and they also probably changed her emotional state.

    Since she was a puppy, whenever Jellybean looked happy and was waggging her tail I would say, “are you wagging your silly cattle dog tail?” and now it has become a cue for her to begin wagging her tail.

    Since reading RTAM I have started trying to use that to change her emotional state when things are starting to get tense between Jellybean and Brit.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing that…and she is referring to Reaching The Animal Mind by Karen Pryor.

      I’m sure most of us have things we say or do to make our dogs happy, and I suspect that many of them make us look really silly. 😉

  3. Blueszz on

    Complete OT comment:
    every time a read one of your posts I have to hug my fearful dog and tell her I love her to death, that I’m proud on her and that I’m happy I adopted her and could change her live.



    • fearfuldogs on

      Well that can’t be bad! I have always been amazed at the chain of love and compassion that often goes into rescuing dogs, and the dogs, for their part, have not a clue! But if your dog did know, she’d be happy you adopted her too.

  4. Lizzie on

    I wish I could bottle and use the excitement and joy that Gracie shows when it’s dinner time. She does her unique Labrador dance, and shows her smiley face when she sees the feeding mats and tables take their positions on the floor. Obviously with me saying, ‘Are you ready where are the boys?’ my other two dogs.

    She knows precisely then that her food will appear and she couldn’t be happier.
    A lovely time of the day for both of us.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Since food is such a big motivator for her you can try to bottle that excitement by coming up with something that you say or do just before the food arrives. ‘Want a treat!’ or raise your arms in victory, ‘dinner time!’-whatever works for you. Then with treats in your pocket after you’ve done this for a couple of weeks, do or say the same thing when it is not meal time and see what she does. Be sure to reward her with the treat regardless of how she responds.

  5. Lizzie on

    Thanks for the suggestion Debbie.

    I will give it a go!

  6. Jade on

    hey erm , just a quick question :
    my american cocker spaniel is so nervous he wont take treats anywhere outside – no matter how tasty i make em he just shuts down and wont eat them – but inside our house he goes crazy for them – he wont play outside when there’s people around either . we can go miles away from the trigger and he still wouldn’t eat 😦 how can i help him overcome this ? thankyou

    • fearfuldogs on


      Some thoughts: Have a read through the website. You need to understand triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization. One way to describe why your dog won’t eat treats is because he is ‘over threshold’ that means that the scary things are too close and/or he anticipates them coming closer. Imagine being in a room where a giant spider regularly comes strolling through, even if the spider isn’t there when you arrive, the potential that it might could be weighing on your mind. Once a dog is scared it can take hours for the hormones in his system to return to pre-scared levels. In the meantime the dog is still going to feel uncomfortable.

      Some ideas that come to mind are: 1) Work on focusing or targeting games with your dog so that you have something for the dog to do, and a well practiced behavior for the dog to fall back on when outside. 2) Work on CC/DS inside the door with the door open, or sitting on the front steps, also gradually getting your dog used to performing targeting or focusing activities when not inside the house. 3) Do not let people near your dog, if you see people, happily talk to your dog and turn around and go the other way, at a snappy pace. If people do end up near your dog ask them to not look at, talk to or try to touch your dog. Your dog has to learn that just because people are in the picture they will not engage with him. You can also begin to work on the exercises you’ve practiced at home.

      So while it may be a quick question, there are no quick solutions or answers. It takes time, patience and management to help a dog like this. Every time your dog is scared by people it is only making it more likely that the dog will experience that response in the future. But it can be done and is quite satisfying when you get the hang of it and see the changes in your dog. How much the dog can change is anyone’s guess, since all are different, but you certainly can learn the skills you need to help your dog be more comfortable in the world, even if he never becomes a social butterfly.

      There is a list of books on the website as well. Good luck. BTW I have a cocker spaniel myself.

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