The Release Cue: Hidden Connections in Training

I named my dog after my favorite musician, Miles Davis. Miles Davis made music that is experimental, bold, and highly varied in style. He always produced interesting tones in the notes he played, but his self-proclaimed focus and what many believe to be his true genius was his attention to the spaces between the notes. Miles Davis made some of the most varied, interesting music; yet his true focus was on the moments of silence that connect and link together sounds. I believe there is great value in looking at concepts beyond music from Miles Davis’s perspective.

Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.
– Miles Davis

When most of us think of dog training, we think of the music, the notes we wish to hit with our training. For example, many people say they want their dogs to:

  • have a good sit stay
  • not rush out of open doors
  • not bolt off while being unleashed
  • wait to be fed

When you think about it, the release from the above behaviors is actually the common factor in each of these skills. In dog training lingo, the release cue marks the final step in each of these behavior chains. Take away the end of the chain, and the rest falls apart. You can’t teach a sit/stay without a release, and you definitely can’t expect a consistent sit/stay without offering a consistent release. Therefore, it is very surprising that no one ever just says, “I want my dog to have a good release.” By saying it that way, we can save our breath in describing a huge list of training goals. There are countless skills that depend on the release. Yet how often do we focus on its importance?

I believe we overlook the release cue, because it doesn’t seem like its own specific goal, and because it is a responsibility that falls on us, not just the dog. People on the whole are very goal-oriented, and by default tend to want to view dog training as compartmentalized hard-work blocks of effort, that will result in the dog consistently performing perfectly on their own. We tend to focus on the goals, rather than the fundamental mechanics that they all require and all have in common.

Goals vs Processes

When people embark on training and observe very well trained dogs, they are often intimidated by how many routines well trained dogs seem to know and perform. If you get stuck thinking about successful dog training as being about lists of separate goals, it is easy to lose sight of how to best achieve those goals. And why settle for just the goals you can think of? What well trained dogs all have in common are handlers who know the value of thinking about how dogs learn, and see training as a process, rather than just lists of end game goals. Not all success in training comes from perfection, or intensive focused work sessions. Successful handlers know that a lot of valuable dog training occurs in daily life, often from some of the simplest routines. Remembering to communicate a simple release cue consistently takes some practice, but with repetition, it will become second nature, and in the process, you’ll develop a better sense of how to reach and even surpass a variety of training goals with your dog.

The Release Cue: Hidden Connections in Training
The start line stay is one of the most challenging parts of agility. Miles’ release cue holds great value to him because from the beginning I consistently used it with the micro stays and waits that didn’t seem important. Rather than putting early emphasis on practicing the release cue specifically for the most difficult pursuit, countless repetitions for a wide range of everyday routines are what cemented Miles’ ability. This approach has the added benefit that Miles’ focus is the process of agility, rather than becoming fixated on the start line stay. Behavior chains work best when the connections are balanced.

Choosing Your Release Cue

In Miles’ puppy class, I was chastised for deciding on “Okay!” as Miles’ release word. I was told, “How often in every day do you say ‘okay’? All the time! Way to confuse your dog! Terrible choice of release word!” That couldn’t have been a more human-centric way to think about it. Dogs are experts of observing people, but if learning to quickly generalize our language was their forte, we’d be in trouble! All joking aside, the word isn’t as important as how it is expressed.

In the beginning, my tone, body language, and the many other observable contextual cues are what likely taught Miles to recognize his release word. Over time, he’s heard me chirp “Okay!” so many times, that he no longer needs other signifiers to immediately understand what I mean. When I say “Yeah, it’s okay if you go ahead without me” to another person, the tone and physical inflection are entirely different than the “Okay!” I chirp to Miles to release him from any number of tasks. Another example of a word in our daily life that Miles knows contextually is the difference between “Miles,” the name I use to address him, and “miles,” the word I use in conversation with other people regarding distance.

Use your own judgment when choosing the right release cue for your dog. Not all dogs can or will respond to verbal cues, and it is good to recognize that not all verbal cues are perceived by our dogs as being strictly verbal, especially not in the beginning when they are learning. Use whatever you feel will be both uniquely experienced by your dog, and easy for you to communicate in the same clear way every time. For something as fundamental as a release cue, I don’t recommend long terms/complicated cues, as you will be less likely to follow through with them. Also make sure to tell those who know or look after your dog how you say your release word. Is it “Breaaaak,” or is it “BreaK!”? Just as Miles (the musician) said, it’s not just the notes, but the way they happen.

A Well Implemented Release Cue is Highly Reinforcing

With all of the training my dog Miles and I have done, his conditioned emotional response (CER) to his release word is strong and well established. Miles associates the release cue with a feeling of joy and excitement. Miles’ release word has been paired, again and again, with the things he loves the most; such as eating meals and running agility. Now, even when the release word isn’t used for those things, he’ll work just to experience the CER it evokes. It is the most powerful, easy, and simple cue that I use countless times in our day.

Most behaviors that end in the release cue are ones that require hard work from our dogs to execute, because they involve self-control and focus that they would not naturally opt to perform on their own. How many dogs want to wait to eat or play? When I first train behavior chains that end in a release cue, I reward the dog with treats throughout the process and following the end of the chain (the release cue). In the beginning, your puppy will rush to you after being released from a sit/stay to get a treat. If well implemented and practiced, eventually your adult dog will have such a strong conditioned emotional response to the release cue, that the cue itself will often become the reward. When a good CER has been established, you may find that sometimes when you release your dog he’ll no longer look expectant for his reward, because he’s already experienced it.

Once you’ve worked up to a consistently reinforced, and therein reinforcing release cue, you will have the freedom to proceed in training more advanced skills, such as unleashing and training your dog in exciting environments. He will be so expectant for the release cue that he will focus on performing what he needs to do to get there, rather than running off wildly pre-cue. If you train and execute your release cue properly and consistently, a whole new world of training becomes possible.

The Release Cue: Hidden Connections in Training
Trust, Respect, and Teamwork

A Better Life Together

The more dog training is viewed as a whole process filled with overlapping systems, rather than being just separate hard-earned work drills, the better you will be able to understand how to set your dog up for success, and to become a better and more relaxed trainer. In this article, I have used the release cue as an example, but really, this applies to any of the connective tissues that hold training processes together.

Miles Davis knew that the space between the notes is where the magic is. In dog training, understanding and valuing the little components that connect the bigger processes will allow you to better understand your dog, yourself, and your training. You’ll be able to communicate with your dog in ways you never dreamed possible, and routines will begin to emerge in your daily life with your dog that you didn’t even consciously train for. That is when you will know that you don’t have “one of those well-trained dogs”— you have more than that. You have a best friend you can truly talk to.

9 comments on The Release Cue: Hidden Connections in Training

  • Darcy

    This is brilliant. So well written. I love it. So simple, but so completely overlooked. I also took criticism for choosing “ok” as a release word, but for ten years now, it has served me and Chester (and me and Sally), just fine. This is a great article that I want to share with lots of Welsh Terrier owners. Makes ALL the difference, doesn’t it?
    Sending you all our best…
    Darcy, Sally and Chester

    • Emma (author)

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I think as we learn more about dog and human behavior alike, we are able to make great strides forward through planning and structuring our behavior; but we can also look backwards a bit, to see how and why some of our instinct-based routines have worked. Looking at both focuses leads us to recognize the greatest source of success between dogs and people: relationships based on trust, respect, and teamwork.

  • Mary Anne

    I *love* this article. I assistant train at a local privately owned training center and we deal with this every beginning session. I, like you, have always been told OKAY isn’t OK. Thank you so much for this, and I love love love the video with Miles. My gosh, I miss my Welshie! How can I get permission to share this as a handout in my classes??

    • Emma (author)

      Mary Anne,
      That opening is brilliant! How fitting for this article. I would be very happy to format this article to be a printable handout. Please email me and I will send the approved handout to you! Thank you for asking.

  • Danielle

    Great video, and article! We also use “Okay” and when I started reading that it was a bad choice I wasn’t surprised. But I’m glad to know that it’s “Okay” to use “okay” – haha!
    We use a release cue sometimes, but from your video I’m seeing that we could be using it even more. Such great ideas! Thanks as always for explaining things so clearly.

    • Emma (author)

      Thank you for your comment. I am pleased that the video helped you! I was surprised when I went to document how often I use Miles’ release word at just how often I used it. The video really only captures the tiniest random cross-section of how often it is used in our daily life. One thing that has really surprised me, since positing this article, is that I have noticed that I OFTEN use Miles’ release cue to work against his terrier nature — often he is hyper-focused on something/stubbornly stuck/etc, and I chirp “Okay!” to get him on to the task at hand. He is SO conditioned to break his pose, that he often redirects as I want him to immediately following the release cue! How fascinating is that? Another article, perhaps??

      • Danielle

        Hmm, your way of using “okay” to work against Miles’ terrier nature got me thinking. I bet I do that sometimes too, especially on a walk if he’s staring at something intently. And I also realized that when Oliver is getting impatient to go outside after dinner, I will often tell him that he has to wait until I’ve finished ‘X’ activity (knowing he doesn’t really understand me), and he’ll sit or lay down to wait. When I am finally all set to go, I’ll use “okay!” in the same tone as a release cue. Then Oliver will go running to the door, knowing that going outside is a “reward”. I guess that’s similar, right?

  • Kelli

    One of THE most valuable things we taught Reggie! We use wait and okay also. It’s amazing how much Miles and Reggie look and act similarly. The lifting of the front paw while waiting and the wiggly tail wagging sit. So cute.

    • Emma (author)

      Well, so far everyone that has commented also uses “Okay” as their release cue, so we are not alone!
      I really enjoyed reading about Reggie’s similar traits. People always attribute the pointer-foot to the Sporting Group, but really, the Terriers have the strongest point. Dogs from the Sporting Group point to signal prey — Terriers point to signal possibilities. That is why I think Terriers have the most all-encompassing point of them all!

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