Can your learner get fluency, in “off cue” behaviors?

Published by: Catja Pedersen

For me, off cue behaviors are the base of my entire training. Being good at those, makes it possible to do all kinds of crazy “advanced” stuff. So reliable off cue behaviors, are the ground base for all the things I am going to teach my leaner.

Upcoming course in January 2020!

Off cue – off control? Vol 1!

“Advanced training, is the basics done really well.” Ken Ramirez mentioned this at a recent ClickerExpo, and I absolutely agree with him.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction” Albert Einstein. 

Let’s go back to making things less complex and just remember, that it is all behavior!

2 of my main focuses when I start working with a new learner, is, getting them to be an active partner in the session, by offering me behavior, and fluency. Until I have that, I really don´t do much else. It builds the ground for both my competition training, my husbandry sessions and just everything in the learners life.

What is this “off-cue” thing?

We can probably agree, that there is always a cue, that leads the learner to do a behavior. It might be the presence of special training equipment, the way the teacher is positioned, the clothes the teacher is wearing etc. So, we can never say, that a behavior had no cue at all.

The contingencies in which the behavior occurs, can just as much be a cue as anything else.

There is always a A-B-C when we look at behavior, and they are all equally important.

As Susan G. Friedman says: “There is never just behavior”, and “behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum”.

The cues/antecedents might be subtle and difficult for us to see, but there is always something that initiates the behavior. Otherwise, the behaviors should occur spontaneous, and I do think that very few dogs, starts offering down or sit, when they are home alone.

So just to make it clear, there is always cues, but we can work as clean as possible, without our arms and legs, being all over the place.

When I say off-cue, what I refer to is:

Looking for the dog to perform the behaviors and actively take part in the training, without needing more than a minimum of involvement from the handler. 

By that I mean, that we do our lessons as clean as possible, without giving verbal cues (before we have stimulus control on the behaviors), and without giving body cues or using luring.

So off cue is – the dog offering the behaviors, without obvious verbal or visual cues from the handler, when possible.

But why off cue then?

When we just start teaching our learner a new behavior, it would make no sense to say the cue. The learner does not know what it means yet, and there is a high risk of us giving the cue, and the learner not responding with the desired behavior.

So, until the behaviors are as perfect as we want them, I don´t add the cue. I want to make sure, that my cue means that the learner does the exact behavior that I have dreamed of, and not just something similar.

If I, for instance, dream of having a fold back down with my dog, I will make sure to practice it off cue, until I have a high level of fluency on the perfect behavior, and only then add the cue. That will ensure that the cue means “fold back down in one movement” and not “lie down in some way”.

So off cue training sessions gives us opportunity to perfect the behaviors, at no risk of destroying our cues, and helps us in keeping our cues clean (when we eventually add them).

It also creates a big behavior library for the learner, that makes it easier for him to solve new situations, when presented for them. And we get a training partner that is a very active part of our session, is creative, engaged and focused.


But how do we then get fluency?

So that we are on the same page, with what I talk about, when I say fluency, I have explained it below.

¨”As currently defined, fluency is the fluid combination of accuracy plus speed that characterizes competent performance (Binder, 1996)”

This definition is what I picture, when I think of fluency. The behaviors will look the same way in each repetition and are performed at the highest possible speed for the learner.

That doesn’t mean that our behaviors will look the same, even if we all have the same behavior fluent.

A border collie and a mastiff doing the same behavior, will have a very different look and rate of the behaviors.

Competent in the dictionary, is defined as “having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully”

Performance is defined as “the action or process of performing a task or function.”

If we look at those together, I would understand that competent performance is: “the action of doing a behavior successfully”. So fluency would be the action of doing a behavior successfully, with speed and accuracy.

How do we get fluency?

There are 3 important things, when we aim for fluency.

  1. Divide it. 

Split the behaviors in as many little parts that makes sense, and practice them to perfection first

“Johnson and Layng (1992, 1994) have reported that when the basics are fluent later learning becomes easier rather than more difficult. Thus, greater focused practice to achieve fluency in a foundation repetoire is more likely to be cost-effective and time efficient than a broad accuracy-based approach to curriculum. This is on contrast to the typical instructional program in which most time is spent on acquisition or “establishing”the skills, with insufficient practice to ensure fluency” –The Behavior Analyst 1996, 19, 163-197 No 2 (Fall)

  1.             Many repetitions

If we really want our behaviors to be fluent, we need to repeat them again and again. We must make sure that we have a lot of repetitions within short time, where the behavior is reinforced.

So, fluency does not come from doing 1 repetition per day, over many days, but instead from doing many repetitions in short time.

We cannot start out with doing a lot of repetitions in short time, from the start, as the learner does not know the behavior.

It is always better to get it right, and teach the right muscle movement first, and then start adding speed later.

Better to go slow and steady, than fast and frantic

  1.             Keep training

This is one of the things I find is crucial for building fluent behaviors. Even when the behaviors are great, we continue training, making sure, that the learner can do them in situations, that are much more difficult than I will likely need!

Teaching is not only producing new behavior; it is also changing the likelihood that a student will respond in a certain way. Since we cannot see a likelihood, we look instead at how frequently a student does something. We see how fast he can add. The student who does problems correctly at a higher rate is said to know addition facts better than one who does them at a lower rate – Vargas (1977, p, 62) The Behavior Analyst 1996

Normally I will test and check the progress in fluency every other week, while I´m building the behaviors, to track the progress or lack of it.

If you want to join me in working with “Off cue” behaviors, there is going to be a lot of behaviors to work on, but don´t get discouraged. We start as if we were going to clean an elephant with a toothbrush – we do it step by step. 🙂



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