Aging and Transitioning Verbal to Other Cues

A while back, there was a post in our Pet Harmony Instagram account with me practicing an indoor recall with one of our dogs, See Kao. I confess we don’t routinely rehearse this so I thought the reason it took her a bit to find me hiding was because she was out of practice. Over the next several weeks, I noticed that there seemed to be a number of sounds that Boon, our other dog or cat Takeshi would hear, but not See Kao. This got me wondering if her slow start to find me had nothing to do with being out of practice but the start of older age hearing loss. 

Besides having her checked out by our vet, this got me thinking about some steps I could probably take in anticipation of our pooch heading into her twilight years and the possibility of age-related hearing loss. If your pet is growing in years, it might be useful for you to reflect on whether there are some essential verbal cues that you’d like to switch over to a hand or other non-verbal signal on the off chance your senior starts to lose their hearing. Once you decide what behavior(s) you want to switch from a verbal to another cue, you can initiate a “cue transfer”.

So what’s a “cue transfer”?  That’s a fancy way of saying you are transiting from one cue to another. I bet many of you have inadvertently done a cue transfer. You may already have a cue like saying, “Fluffy walkies” to let her know it was time to rally, get equipment on, get ready by the door etc. How many of you find you don’t need to say the cue anymore but merely picking up the leash activates Fluffy to move to the door to head out for fun? Picking up the leash became the cue to Fluffy that it’s time for a walk and you didn’t need to say “Walkies” anymore. 

The process to do an intentional cue transfer is to simply give the new cue directly before the existing cue, wait for the behavior, and then give reinforcement for performing the behavior. Let’s say you’d like to transfer from a verbal cue of “Go to your bed” to a hand signal cue for this behavior. In this case, give your new hand signal followed by the old verbal cue “Go to your bed”. Initially Fluffy will see the new hand signal but not know that this hand signal is a cue to go to her bed but she’ll recognize the verbal cue and proceed to perform the behavior –don’t forget to provide reinforcement to acknowledge that she did the thing. By pairing the hand signal with the verbal cue, Fluffy will start recognizing the sequence and likely start heading to her bed after seeing the hand signal. Once this happens, you can fade out the verbal cue and only give the hand signal. Remember to reinforce once Fluffy goes to her bed as you practice the cue transfer..  

You can cue transfer any of your existing verbal cues to a hand signal or other non-verbal cue. If you have taught your dog friend a lot of different verbal cues, it might be useful to first reflect on which of the cues constitute essential skills that help you and your pooch live harmoniously as they head into their twilight years.  

We have a cue, “Home Base” for See Kao to go a platform by the front door where we put on gear, where she waits until the door gets opened, and a release cue is given. This makes getting out the door in a multi-pet household a lot less chaotic. When I say “Home Base”, See Kao knows to head over to the platform, she can choose to sit or lay down and wait for whatever is happening next. We’ve been transferring the verbal cue of “Home Base” to a hand signaled cue as well as a hand signal to cue her that she can head out the door. 

In the process of teaching this cue transfer, I realized that I will need a new way to get See Kao’s attention in order for her to see my hand cues. A few different options might be a light tap on her body to get her attention, a light switching on, or at this point in the aging process she still seems to readily hear a whistle so any of these would work for her.  


Now What? 

  • Pick an existing cue that you’d like to change to another word, hand signal, or other signal.
  • Begin in a no/low distraction space to teach your pet the new cue. Remember: it’s New Cue > Old Cue > Perform Behavior > Reinforcement. Continue with pairing the new and old cue until your pet begins to perform the cued behavior right after the new cue at which time you can start fading out the old cue and just use the new cue.  
  • If your pooch or other pet is moving towards their senior phase and you’d like some support to prepare for this, we are here to work with you so don’t hesitate to reach out to one of us. 


Happy Training! 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *