Cueing our Learners: Giving Feedback in Dog Training Classes

Written by Helen Prinold, M.Sc, CDBC

Dog trainers and behavior consultants tend to spend a lot of time helping our learners – the clients, not their dogs – develop new skills to help manage their canines. Yet early in my career I had observed that the majority of our professional development tends to be about how dogs learn, and not so much about how people learn.

However, there is no regulated profession that monopolizes adult training, so there was no conflict for me in expanding my dog behavior toolbox to cover current science in human learning. Human learning is also not a big stretch – after all, animal behavior and learning is what dog professionals do all the time and humans are also animals (according to the Oxford Dictionary definition)!

With that in mind, I started exploring the most common type of learning my clients have to do. A major key seemed to be learning motor skills (aside from other critical areas like being in relationship with their dog, ability to work in groups, and an understanding of functional training theory). Lots of my time seemed focused on teaching physical skills like leash holding and pulling management, emergency U-turns, delivering treats, signalling stays and downs, and so on. The major intervention I had seen trainers make was to provide cue feedback aimed at supporting learners and the learning process.

I eagerly bounced in to my first group class as a novice trainer with a carefully laid out group lesson plan based on well-known adult learning principles and learning models. I had carefully focused on using what’s know as the ADDIE approach (analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate) and other models from instructional design experts, as well as approaches described in earlier books on adult education planning (such as Caffarella et al., 2013), or in corporate or academic training guides. However, despite all this planning for teaching, I still left many of those early dog training sessions feeling I needed to be better at feedback.

Giving useful feedback clients can feel good about

I knew feedback could strengthen learning (Kulhavy, 1977). It also strengthens students’ self-regulated learning processes of forethought, performance, and self-reflection (as described in Zimmerman, 2013). And I was already providing lots of direction at the beginning of a task and then fading the cue as the learner actually learns (Schmidt and Wrisberg, 2008).

Yet I had seen some very poor models for providing feedback, especially when I was early in my animal training career in the horse world. Deficits at times seemed to be pointed out in a motivation-harming, damaging, punishment-style manner, without constructive improvement suggestions of what to do. These methods also shut down conversations that might promote learning (Urquhart et al., 2014, Carless, 2011, Sargeant et al., 2008, Fernando et al., 2008, Henderson et al., 2005) – some people I met called this “being should-ed upon.”

I also talked to friends who had experienced corporate performance reviews that were conducted poorly. If you have experienced reviews, you may have been on the receiving end of the “feedback sandwich” formula (where the reviewer provided feedback in a “positive-negative-positive” order). Sometimes it was clear the positives were only briefly mentioned and the negative was the focus and the reason for the review. At other times, reviewers dredged up trivial negatives just to tick off the “I provided negative feedback” box. In both cases this could leave a lingering bad taste in the learner’s mouth.

Giving negative feedback in this way also probably provided the feedback-givers a little boost in their day. Robert Sapolsky, behavioral biologist and neuroendocrinologist at Stanford University, highlighted in his 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst that people’s brains get a chemical reward when they punish someone.

So, over time I began to avoid these formulas by instead providing authentic suggestions. Around this time, I was also introduced to the work of professional coaches doing rehabilitation, athletics, Olympic sports psychology, and personal training. They very specifically dealt with cue feedback as “discrete targets or references for the execution of a movement, thereby invigorating and facilitating movement” (Nieuwboer, 2007). Or, as motor learning expert Charles Shea said, the provision of “cognitive training wheels for performers.” (Knudson, 2013)

Experts in the field speak of five specific types of verbal cues for improving performance:

  • Internal (often touching the area discussed) – “Keep your leash hand hugging your side.”
  • External – “Keep your leash hand level with your dog’s head.”
  • Analogy – “Think of the leash as a cobweb connecting you instead of a tow rope.”
  • Story-telling – “I met a wee Scottie dog who flinched when the person holding the leash tried to deliver a treat because they were looming over him instead of delivering from below the nose.”
  • Motivational – reinforcement or punishment – “Yes, you’ve got it.” or “No, drop your hand.”

Of these types of cues, exterior cues are the simplest for motor learning (Winkelman et al., 2017; Benz et al., 2016; Wulf, 2013; Makaruk et al., 2014), although learners of different stripes may respond more effectively to the different types of cues. This often applies to members of the same family who you are trying to teach at the same time. And, of course, you have to consider that different modes of transmission may also be more effective (for example, using a whiteboard in class for a visual learner). Given Susan Friedman’s Humane Hierarchy, though, I work hard to leave punishment cues off the list! Different types of cues can also be helpful at different times with the same person, to add more bricks to their skill scaffold. From the movement cue feedback experts, I received wonderful (if slightly ambiguous) advice: “Say the most with the least.”

Up until that point, I had sometimes overwhelmed learners with verbal feedback. I had at times fallen into the trap of being so nervous about giving feedback that I talked until I hid the message.

Learning from cue feedback professionals helped me get better at promptness, level of detail, clarity, structure, and relevance (Nicol, Thomson & Breslin, 2014). They also noted that the feedback I had at times received from clients when I was a novice highlighted clearly when I was less than effective at getting student engagement. Feedback I had seen in learners at times in my novice classes included:

  • Glazed eyes
  • Low retention rates from session to session
  • Dogs that learned behaviors I hadn’t intended to teach, such as trotting in front of the leash holder seeking treats because the handler hadn’t understood great delivery during loose-leash walking.

Poring over dog training industry material focused on training people also helped me hone my skills a bit more, including hearing conference speakers, and reading articles and books by Nicole Wilde (2003), Terry Ryan (2005) and Risë VanFleet (2013, 2008) among others. It was also invaluable for me to engage in case studies and client education and compliance discussions with physicians, veterinarians, and human behavior change practitioners.

I learned more about how to set learners up for success. The importance of learner involvement in the process was also brought home; things like small discussion groups and reporting back help improve content ownership and help learners “embody” the training. I also came to understand the value of making time for “just guessing” at what I am trying to recommend – research shows that “just guessing” improves how much learners remember about what they learn (Zawadzka, 2019). What I strive to do more of these days is to step back and give a small instruction that helps the learner “feel in their body” when they are moving correctly. As a result, one of my favourite cue feedback sequences for loose-leash walking has become “Click, reach for treat, deliver to left knee.

TAGTeach and gamification

TAGTeach ®– basically clicker training for people – has been so helpful for me. TAGTeach uses positive reinforcement, shaping, and a handheld device (yep, a clicker) to mark or “tag” correct behaviors at the moment they occur. Their slogan is “TAG, don’t nag.” According to the TAGTeach website, the “tag” pinpoints the exact moment the tag point is executed correctly and gives immediate and clear feedback to the learner. The instructor basically shapes the learner’s behavior in the same way we can click and treat little intentional movements to encourage a dog to progress toward a big intentional movement. I experience these moments with dogs often. For example, when doing behavior consulting at our local humane society, we used the intentional movement of the head down toward the mat to work on shaping a great “go and lie down on your mat” in one of our big energetic dogs (whose adopters might need a break in his intensity someday).

The evidence that TAGTeach works in people is solid. In 2016 it was used to teach surgeons how to perform bone surgery. The group of students who didn’t get tag-taught did a good job – but students who were tagged were more precise in their movements, and performed the tasks more proficiently (Levy et al., 2016).

I learned to “gamify” my lessons to make it more fun to learn, and use

  • Progress mechanics like points, badges, and leaderboards.
  • Challenges that are laid out with increasing difficulty as a learner “levels up”.
  • Opportunities for collaborative problem-solving to encourage social connection.
  • Short games in the classroom — there are some fun games in Terry Ryan’s 2017 book.

I give positive verbal praise (and Werther’s caramel candies for the most excellent efforts) during learning, as well as asking the learner for their thoughts. Internet terminology helps me here, as I remember to I ask – “WWW and WEB”… standing for “What went well and what’s even better?”.

Insights from neuroscience

Along the way I kept strengthening what I previously knew, including that observable behaviors are part but not all of the equation. Good cues and feedback can’t happen without effectively reading how they are received by the learner and determining if the learner is even capable of understanding them. Like our dogs, our learners need to be in, as Suzanne Clothier says, the “Think and Learn Zone.” Learning a new physical skill from someone involves shifting between attention-controlled and automatic behavior (Wu et al., 2015) – that is, between three areas: the “thinking” brain (pre-frontal cortex), the area of the brain where empathy is processed (the anterior cingulate cortex), and the back of the brain (basal ganglia), an area that is responsible for involuntary movements. That’s a lot of processing!

Sometimes there are disconnects that slow processing. Subtle body language “tells” can trigger approach and avoidance more quickly than the thinking brain is able to process verbal content (Reiss and Kraft-Todd, 2014). Some learners can’t manage to “hear” verbal feedback at all in the (for them) charged and difficult environment of the group classroom where they experience a variety of emotions. I expect we all know learners who find it challenging to attend to verbal instruction – in their heads they are too busy judging the situation and preparing to rebut the words of the trainer. One-on-one private lessons to supplement classes may work much better for learners whose ability to focus externally is compromised.

These concepts have added another dimension to feedback cues beyond trying to make them shorter and sweeter. Now I spend much more time trying to set the stage so the session aligns with the goals of the learner. As Amy Rowe says in her 2014 paper on emotions in learning, it’s important to understand “whether the situation/concern aligns with the person’s goals, the extent to which they feel able to control and cope with the situation and who or what is perceived to be the cause (another person, themselves or random circumstances)” [Author’s note: the dog is often a random circumstance!]. An angry learner may choose to yell or leave rather than engaging in a discussion about the feedback received, while a learner who feels sad might stop coming to classes feeling they (or their dog) were not good enough to be there. Neither benefits the learning experience (or gets you good online reviews)! That doesn’t mean I don’t communicate ahead of time with good boundaries, rules, and policies; it just means that all of the setup of the training has to be individually appropriate as well.


When I was a novice, I focused on delivering a carefully pre-prepared lesson plan or spent my time focusing on the dogs in the classroom.  Nowadays, I’m paying more attention to how the learner is receiving me in the moment. Reading about feedback in medical settings, I found a useful mnemonic for monitoring connection in the moment: E.M.P.A.T.H.Y. (Reiss and Kraft-Todd, 2014). The acronym was created by reviewing a lot of non-verbal body language literature. It reminds me to keep attuned to:

E (eye contact)

Direct eye contact (in our culture, although less so in Eastern cultures) tends to reflect active engagement (although it may be lessened in people with autism spectrum disorder and – obviously – in cases of vision impairment).

M (muscles of facial expression)

Just as we watch dogs for tight faces and wrinkled brows, we need to monitor our human learners for those same tightening signs of arousal and stress and take steps to reduce it.

P (posture)

Sitting at eye level with the learner or standing side by side implies working together – while standing to point things out while they are seated subtly conveys you perceive them as “less than” you.

A (affect)

This has two components: First, paying attention to the learner’s emotional state from the cues we get from their body language, etc. Second, asking our learner to speak about how they are feeling rather than relying on these cues alone.

T (tone)

Using tones that convey warmth and concern about how the learner is feeling shows more connectedness than using louder “instructional” tones that carry less emotional content. This is why I invested in a voice amplifier – I can convey the same emotional content but at a higher volume.

H (hearing the whole patient)

This requires taking the learner you see in front of you and putting their actions in context with their own narrative and social world. This includes by necessity being competent about other cultures. As an example, I have at times bonded with a learner over their fondness for Cesar Millan’s techniques when I tell them that I appreciate his emphasis on making sure the dogs get good quality and amounts of the physical and mental exercise they need. Then I move on quickly into a discussion of the start of the Humane Hierarchy highway, and what I can bring to the table in addition to ensuring the right amount of exercise that might work for them in a way some of Cesar’s techniques would not. I also make a mental note that often a client’s praise of Cesar’s methods may stem from their being brought up with the “spare the rod, spoil the child” discipline model, so I make sure to show along the way how treats are payment for work rather than a way to spoil your pet. I also am clear in my instruction about how to reduce reliance on food and employ both food AND non-food rewards as reinforcers.

Y (your response)

The Y at the end of empathy is intended to remind me to be curious about my own reaction to the situation, including any desire to disengage by becoming angry, frustrated, or detached. A little self-monitoring for fatigue and hunger is not a bad thing either! Robert Sapolsky’s book was where I learned that judges make harsher sentencing decisions just before lunch when they are hungry.

An educational alliance

I also try to be aware of the fact that learners are meeting me within the context of an educational alliance (Telio et al., 2016, 2015). This is definitely not the one-way “I’m the teacher, you’re the learner – so comply” approach popular when I was a child. These learner-centric approaches come from the fields of personal therapy, mindfulness and empowerment, as well as from history revived. Because as Galileo said, “We cannot teach people anything, we can only help them discover it within themselves.” Learners judge my credibility, my body, my presentation methods, and our agreement to work toward their goal – among many other things! Yes, research sadly shows that learners will evaluate instructors as less skilled in their role if they show signs of physical disability or other infirmities (Bryant and Curtner-Smith, 2009). Who knew that something as simple as rubbing my back after a day of gardening could create the impression that I’m less skilled?

Learners really want to know there is a mutual understanding of the goals in our work and to know that I like and trust them – just as I hope they like and trust me. When we have this strong alliance, it allows us the opportunity to engage in feedback that could be perceived as negative at other times – allowing us to receive it as a true aid to improvement instead of a personal attack.

A final useful addition to my toolkit comes from the world of daily effectiveness planning. At the end of each day, I take a few moments to think about how things have gone. Along with gratitude and reflecting on things like whether I managed my resources and connected with people well, I have added two questions that focus my co-work with learners. I think about a learner interaction that was effective of ineffective. Then I reflect on what influenced the interaction and what I might do differently next time and why. So that’s where I’m at in working with an expanded awareness of effective feedback cues. I’m finding myself feeling more effective in training and consultations as a result. Still, I would love to hear what you’re doing and what you’ve learned along the way! Somehow, I expect that I’ve just scratched the surface in this fascinating area. I’m looking forward to digging deeper.


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Helen Prinold owns Dog Friendship in Ontario, Canada, where she provides puppy socialization classes, helps raise great family pets, and supports clients as they build dog sport skills. She has a behavior consulting practice, is the weekly volunteer behaviorist at her local animal shelter, and has also run the puppy training program for a service dog charity. She holds a master’s degree in animal behavior and welfare, has a CPDT-KA certification, and is Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through IAABC. Currently, she is president of the Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers. Helen has two dogs – a Lyme-diseased shelter refugee American Eskimo and an undersocialized YorkiePoo rescued after two years living indoors in just one room. From time to time she reminds herself that despite the high costs of working with dogs, they are still cheaper and more portable than the horses she trained for many years.