What is a Cue vs. a Command in Dog Training


Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Language is important. The words we choose help us express ourselves clearly. They also help us better understand our own mindset and intentions. This is certainly true in dog training when we compare the words cue and command.

A command is compulsory and insists. A cue is an opportunity and invites. Commands often come with the threat of do-it-or-else. A cue is an open door to earn reinforcement. Let’s take a closer look.

In dog training, commands are quickly becoming outdated. They were words, usually issued in a harsh or “commanding” tone. The dog’s failure to choose the right behavior often resulted in a physical punishment. If a dog continued to stand when commanded to sit, he would get an upward jerk on the leash until he sat. A dog who dawdled when commanded to come would suffer a shock until he ran toward the trainer (alternatively he’d get a jerk to the neck from a long leash). Dogs had to do what they were commanded or they would suffer the consequence.

Modern dog trainers use positive reinforcement and cues. A cue is a word, phrase, or visual signal that indicates reinforcement is available if the dog chooses the behavior associated with that cue. We can teach a dog that when we say “come,” if he walks or runs to us, he gets a bit of the food we are carrying in our treat pouch. In fact, we can teach him that he only gets the food if we’ve said that word. He can wander over on his own, but the behavior is only reinforced when we cue it. Trainers call this stimulus control.

Maybe some human examples will make the difference between a command and a cue more clear.

The green light at an intersection is a cue. It signals that the reinforcement of forward movement is available. The light does not command us to go. There is no looming punishment if we don’t. Though one could argue that the honk from the guy behind us is more of a punishing command.

Here’s another one. The bell of an elevator arriving is a cue that the reinforcement of boarding and reaching our destination is available. The bell does not command us to get on. There’s no compulsion. Nothing pushes us in. The floor outside the elevator doesn’t electrify if we don’t step through the door.

The message indicator on your phone is a cue, that red number next to the icon. If we press the right spot, reinforcement is available. We do this all day long. But, this one is a bit different because sometimes the behavior is reinforcing (a nice message from a friend, a love interest, or an opportunity from our boss or client). Sometimes the message can be punishing, though (a complaint form an angry spouse for instance). The cue in this case works only if pressing the icon is reinforcing enough times to keep the behavior going. Otherwise, we become one of those people with a hundred unread messages.

Commands come from authority. They are usually stress inducing. Police lights in the rear view mirror are a command to pull over. Military officers and government officials issue commands.

Cues come from collaborators. They are often reassuring. A nod from a friend keeps a conversation going. Actors take cues on a stage from fellow players.

The question here isn’t whether one is more effective than the other, a cue or a command. They can both work. The real question is for those of us on the receiving end. Do you want to be cued or commanded? Door number one or door number two? That’s a cue. Or, get through that (explitive) door right now! That’s a command. Which do your prefer? Which do you think your dog might want?


Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston Texas. He specializes in aggressive dog training and fear-related behavior problems.