If you’ve ever formally taught a dog to stay, you’ve probably been also introduced to the concept of release cues. For those unfamiliar, release cues are cues can be words, hand signals or others, that communicate to your dog (usually) some change in a set boundary.
Most people think of release cues in relation only to stay. A cue that they say to end the stay behavior for their dog. But I use them a bit more widely, and my definition of release cue is to communicate a change in a set boundary.
So what does that mean? Well, I have a few release cues that I teach the dogs in my life.
Release cue “Okay.” Okay is my base release cue. There are tons of reasons not to use the word okay, but I started using it decades ago and by the time I thought I might want to change it I was trained and the group of dogs I then had was trained and well yea didn’t happen. So okay it is. Had I thought more, I probably would have used the word ‘break’ as my base release cue. But hind sight is 20/ 20 as they say.
As my base release cue it’s the one I use when releasing from a stay or a wait. And I train it as a ‘move out of the stay but continue working’. So if I have Zora in a down stay at the start line and I release ‘okay’ it’s to tell her to move out of the down stay and continue working with me through the agility course. Or if I’ve asked Tom to stop for a moment as we’re walking and then am ready to move once more, I cue “Ok, forward” the Okay is the release from the wait cue I gave and the forward is the direction I’d like him to take me. I use ‘okay’ to give the dogs permission to go through the outside door, exit a crate, get out of the car, etc. In all of those cases, when I give the cue I would like the dog to stay mentally engaged with me and not rush forward mindlessly.
I also use my base ‘okay’ release cue to tell the dogs they can now cross a boundary I previously set. Such as I’m cooking in the kitchen, and I ask the dogs to get out of the kitchen. They go elsewhere but aren’t on a formal stay cue, they can go where they please in the house just as long as it isn’t in the kitchen. Once I’m done cooking and am fine with them coming into the kitchen, I call them over and tell them “okay” inviting them to cross the threshold and enter the kitchen once more.
Release cue “Go play” (or often because I’m trained “Okay, go play”) is my dog’s release cue that means you are off lead and free to go romp around but please keep at least part of your brain and senses connected with me still. Or go run around like a nut but stay within a reasonable range and check in with me every so often unprompted please. I train that “go play’ is the release to go run and romp off lead, not the leash itself being taken off. What that means is when we’re in the woods and I remove the lead, the dogs don’t immediately go racing off. They hang around waiting for the ‘ok, go play’ verbal release. Or if I call Zora to heel while she’s off lead, she then walks beside me until ‘ok, go play’ then she’ll race off. Or if I call the dogs in a recall, praise and treat them, then again they hang around until the verbal ‘go play.’ If a dog races off before the verbal release cue, I call them back and we practice some more.
Then I have a number of release cues that are built off of my base “okay” cue. Such as “ok, go sniff.” If we’re on an on lead walk and something stressful just occurred or the dogs seem to want it, we’ll stop. They connect with me. Then I cue, “ok, go sniff” and they get a few moments to then sniff and snuffle in the grass, dirt, leaves. After a bit, I ask them, “all set, ready again?” and sometimes they come right back then and are ready to walk once more, sometimes they tell me they want a little more sniff time. Or “ok, say hi” I use when I’m communicating to my dogs it’s alright with me for them to go visit another person if they’d like.
Another release cue I have is “All Done.” All Done is my phrase for ‘the interaction is over.’ So this can be interacting with me, All Done indicates our training session is ended, or our toy game is over, or I’m done petting them. If I’m playing with a toy with Zora and I’ve had enough or I can tell she’s starting to get tired, I’ll pick up the toy, say “All Done” and then depending either hand the toy to her or put it away, we’re all done playing for now at that point. During a play session I might use a number of ‘okay’ release cues, say if I’ve asked her to stay as I throw the toy then release ‘okay’ to go get it. The All Done cue won’t be used until the end, when the game is really over. All Done doesn’t mean I disengage and now ignore my dog, it means what we were doing is over so don’t ask me to throw the toy one more time, or to give you one more repetition in this training exercise. All Done can also be used to end a greeting with another dog or person. For example this morning we met up with a group of friends and dogs for a walk. At the start the dogs were greeting, then I cued “All Done” to get my 2 to disengage from the other dogs after a few moments of sniff greetings.
I find release cues important for creating clarity for my dogs. Because I’m consistent with my release cues and their criteria, my dogs find it easier to know what rules are being asked of them when and how.
Do you train release cues? How do you and your dog use them?