How to use a release cue
Release cues are used by animal trainers in a variety of ways:
- Movement is allowed again, following stays
- A stop or pause from work
- Permission to move over boundary lines
- Release cues can even be used to reinforce (strengthen) the previous behavior!
Many handlers like using a release cue to let the dog know that it’s time to relax, or at least not perform for a few minutes. You can train as many different kinds of release cues as you’d like. Usually trainers pair the end of a training session with a toy or treats to signal that work is done. Or a trainer might use a mid-session release cue that means the dog may take a break, but should remain ready to perform again soon.
If your dog is familiar with a concept such as stay on a mat, or rest in an open crate, you most likely have trained a strong release cue in association with that behavior.
Besides being a useful training tool, a solid release cue can also save your dog’s life! Using a release cue before going out doorways, crates, through gates or out of vehicles is a strategy you can practice, and teach your clients.
Resources for training a release cue
Susan Garrett’s DVD, “Crate Games for Self-Control and Motivation,” demonstrates how to use a crate to teach boundaries, stays and a solid release; or watch clicker trainer Emily Larlham’s “How to train a release cue” video on YouTube:
How to begin training a release cue
To teach a release cue, start simply. Choose a position your dog already understands well, but one without a verbal or formal release cue, such as a sit, down or free stack / stand. The cue can be anything you’d like — a word, phrase, or hand signal. Popular options are “Free,” “Release,” “Go” or “Break.”
Ask for the familiar position, and as soon as your dog complies, give your release cue and toss a treat in a place where your dog will have to change positions to pick it up. Encourage your dog to move to collect the treat, if necessary.
If you are working indoors or outdoors on a smooth surface, you can roll the treat along the floor as you give the release cue. This will encourage your dog to chase the treat. If you are outdoors on an uneven surface, or grass, put the treat close to your dog’s nose before you toss it. This will help her find it. Toss the treat only a short distance.
Using release cues with stays
You can alternate feeding a treat and releasing with increasing the duration of the dog’s stay each time. Once you’ve reached 5-10 seconds for a single position, begin alternating the release with cues for other familiar behaviors. Make sure to reinforce correct performance of those behaviors or positions, as well.
You may continue to increase the duration of the stays before you release the dog, but try not to continue increasing the duration in a linear fashion. That is, don’t wait 20 seconds, then 30, then 40, and so on. Ask your dog to do some short stays or waits, and some longer ones, with cues other than a release in between. This way, your dog doesn’t begin to anticipate the release and start breaking his or her stays early.
If you are training a release over a threshold, such as a gate, you will need to make sure your dog understands it’s the release cue, and not the opening of the gate or your movement towards the gate, that means he has permission to go. Ask the dog for a sit in front of the gate and reach for the latch. If he doesn’t move, then quickly feed a treat. Repeat this step 2-3 times. The fourth time, give the release cue and toss your treat. Toss the treat away from, rather than toward, the gate when you release. This will prevent your dog from becoming focused on the gate opening.
Once your dog is reliably waiting for a release cue when you reach for the gate, you can try quickly opening, then closing it, before you feed. Repeat several times before releasing. When you finally give your dog permission to go through the gate using your release cue, do not roll a treat. Going through the gate itself is the reinforcement. If your dog is unsure and hesitates on the release because he doesn’t see a treat, just encourage him through with your voice and body language. He’ll figure it out soon enough!
Make sure the first few times you release and treat, you release in a direction opposite of the threshold. Again, we want to encourage our dogs to receive reinforcement away from the threshold. A dog who is dragging us through the gate once released is not our goal!
To test the power of your release cue, you can add distractions during your training. In our gate example, add the distraction of clipping the leash on or off while the gate is open. Or you could have another dog present while you open the gate. Be sure to reinforce your dog for passing these harder tests by feeding more or better treats!
More ways to proof your dog’s release cue
Another way to proof the release cue is to “try out” different words while your dog is holding still. Say neutral or nonsense words that aren’t cues for other behaviors. At first, use words that sound nothing like the release cue. Later, you can challenge your dog by using words that sound similar to your release cue or phrase. Also try carrying toys, or changing your body position. Sit, squat, jog away or wave your arms, and see how your dog responds. If he waits for his release cue, release with a treat!
If your distractions or nonsense words cause your dog to move, reposition her and try again using a slightly shorter duration and easier distractions. Reinforce heavily at this level before moving onto the harder tests again.
More benefits of training a release cue
When you train a release cue using positive reinforcement (in this case, food for the release), the release itself will become a reinforcer. The chance to be released is reinforcing the behavior that is happening when you give the release! Be sure your release cue happens only when the dog is the position. For example, when free stacking, don’t release when the dog is fidgeting or trying to “guess” the correct position. Likewise, if the dog is heeling, don’t give the release cue while the dog’s head is down, sniffing the ground!
Try to keep your dog guessing about when you’ll use your release cue, versus a cue for another behavior. In this way you can keep the release cue strong. Once your dog understands the release cue and responds immediately and only when you give it, the cue is reinforcing enough to drop the food.