SMAF Manual

SMAF Cover Page

SMAF Cover Page

Mission SMAF—Bringing Scientific Precision Into Animal Training

This is the SMAF manual, latest update. The SMAF manual is in a way a super concentrated course in animal learning. This is only a booklet, but it will take you time to read and digest. Don’t rush thru it.

We update this manual regularly, sometimes even daily. Come back often to check if there are any new updates. Each manual has a version number (v.YYMMDD).

Changes in this version v.120302:

  • Updated and improved syntax with some new symbols.
  • Updated examples of how to transcribe the teaching of skills in SMAF.
  • New Chapter 4 “Quick guide to designing a POA in SMAF.”

Enjoy your reading!


Click the full-screen view icon for better reading. Zoom in and out as you please.

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Changes in version v.111023:

  • Definition of command with example, page 10: “While a signal is everything that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver, a cue is everything that unintentionally changes the behavior of the receiver. A command is a signal that changes the behavior of the receiver in a specific way with no variations or only extremely minor variations.”
  • SMAF syntax corrected, page 22: “25.2. Example 1: Sit,sound + Sit,hand + γSit,treat  ⇒ The dog sits ⇒ “!+sound” + “!-food”.” (The second ⇒ was missing).
  • Minor typos corrected.

Changes in version v.111017:

  • Semi-conditioned reinforcers have their own code.
  • Non-SD has its own code.
  • New code for reinforcers and punishers.
  • Signal and cue slightly redefined.
  • A new POA example (POA example 3).
  • New photos.

Dog Training: Signals, Cues, Commands, Obedience and Punishment

Kelly Gorman Dunbar and Roger Abrantes at Animal Cafe.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar interviewed Roger Abrantes at Animal Cafe on October 17, 2011.

This is the podcast where Kelly Gorman Dunbar interviewed me for Animal Cafe.

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Signal and Cue—What is the Difference?

Male Lion (Panthera leo) and Cub eating a Cape...

Secondary sexual traits, as the mane of the male lion, are powerful cues (Image via Wikipedia).

In the behavioral sciences, there is some confusion about the meaning of the terms signal and cue (as with so many other terms) and some authors use it interchangeably. To make it even more difficult, communication theory also uses the same terms with slightly different meanings and in the theatre and movies world a ‘cue’ is actually a ‘signal.’

However, in behavioral sciences, the general consensus (see references below) is that signal and cue have the following meanings.

signal is a perceivable behavior or feature that has evolved and has acquired the specific characteristic of conveying information about the signaler or the signaler’s environment. Information (communication) changes the behavior or the beliefs of the receiver.

This definition of signal implies that if a signal changes the behavior of an organism, this change of behavior must be profitable to both sender and receiver more often than not, or otherwise, signalers would cease to send the signal and receivers would cease to respond. This definition distinguishes, in principle, a signal from coercion, although some signals may be coercive, e.g. threats.

In general, signals must be honest and reliable, or otherwise they cease to have any effect (receivers don’t behave appropriately) and they undermine communication (honest senders will not benefit from sending the signals). However, some signals can tolerate a certain degree of dishonesty, all depending on the costs and benefits for all parties. H. W. Bates discovered in 1861 that some (palatable) butterflies had an advantage in mimicking (Batesian mimicry) poisonous butterflies, which is detrimental to the poisonous butterflies inasmuch as it turns their signals of unpalatability less reliable. On the other side, some species use the same signals to convey the same information and they all benefit from it (Mullerian mimicry).

cue is any feature that an organism can use as a guide to display a particular behavior or series of behaviors. The classical example is the mosquito seeking a mammal to bite and flying up wind when it detects CO2. The CO2 is a cue for the mosquito, but it is surely not a signal sent by the mammal, which would prefer to remain undetected and not be bitten. Intentionality is the key element to distinguish signals from cues.

A cue is a regularity, a pattern that either is permanently ‘on,’ or is ‘on’ and ‘off” depending on specific conditions, e.g. a rock, a tree, or the position of the sun in the sky cues us of directions, and dark clouds cues us of impending rain. The rock, the tree, the sun and the clouds are not there to give us information, but they do if we interpret them correctly. A signal is more malleable, more intentional and we can turn it ‘on’ and ‘off’ in response to relevant cues in the environment, e.g. the warning cry that many species (signal) issue in response to the appearance (cue) of a feared predator.

Cues are traits or actions that benefit the receiver exclusively. The sun and the rock do not profit from us getting our bearings. When a mouse by accident makes a rustling sound in the leaves and attracts a predator increasing the risk of being killed, the sound is a cue for the predator about the location of its prey. When an alert animal deliberately gives a warning call to a stalking predator resulting in the predator giving up the hunt, this sound, the alert call, is a signal both for conspecifics and the predator. Different species can, thus, communicate by means of signals which both recognize and behave accordingly.

Secondary sexual traits are features that distinguish the two sexes of a species, but that are not directly part of the reproductive system. They are probably the product of sexual selection for traits, which give an individual an advantage over its rivals in courtship and competitive interactions. Secondary sexual traits are also cues for the opposite sex. They are not directly related to a better production of offspring, but are normally good indicators of better sperm quality or egg production, e,g, manes of male lions (Panthera leo) and long feathers of male peacocks (Pavo cristatus). In humans, visible secondary sexual traits include enlarged breasts of females and facial hair on males.

The study of signals and cues is more complex that it may appear at first sight. Cues can become signals. In 1952, Niko Tinbergen described ritualization as the evolutionary process whereby a cue may be converted into a signal, e.g. the canine behavior of baring teeth. In 1975, Zahavi described the handicap principle where the reliability of some signals is ensured because they advertise greater costs than absolutely necessary, e.g. the exaggerated plumage of the peacock.

We must understand correctly what the intentionality of signals means and not to confound the intentionality of the signal itself with its origin, development and evolution. Signals do not origin by design with a determined purpose. Some features or behaviors just happen at a certain time to be efficient for an organism in generating in another organisms the right behavior at the right time. If they convey an advantage to these organisms in their struggle for survival (and reproduction), they will spread in the population (provided these organisms reproduce). With time, they gain intentionality and become true signals, but their origin was accidental like everything else. This is the reason why I had to modify (some extensively) the definitions I use in this text and I had to create new ones—to make them compatible with the Darwinian theory of evolution.

Applying the principle of simplicity, as always, I suggest the following definitions:

signal is everything that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver. A cue is everything that unintentionally changes the behavior of the receiver.

These definitions open for the possibility to better distinguish between the intentional signals (proper signals) we send and the unintentional ones (which are cues). For example, many dog owners say “no” to their dogs meaning “stop what you are doing,” but their (unintentional) body language (cue) says “yes.”

In conclusion: signal is the most correct term to denominate what we use when we communicate with our animals; and signals may assume many forms, auditory (the words we use), visual (the hand movements and body language we use), olfactory (in canine detection work), tactile (a touch, very common in horse training) and probably also palatable.

So, enjoy the consequence of your (intentional) signals and be careful with any cues you may be (inadvertently) sending to your favorite animal. Enjoy as well your further studies of this fascinating topic: animal communication.

Keep smiling!



References and further readings

  • Dawkins, M. S., and T. Guilford (1991). The corruption of honest signalling. Animal Behaviour 41:865–873.
  • Donath, J. (2007). Signals, cues and meaning (February draft for Signals, Truth and Design. MIT Press)
  • Hasson, Oren (1997). Towards a general theory of biological signaling. Journal of Theoretical Biology 185: 139-156.
  • Hauser, Marc D. and Mark Konishi, eds. (1999). The design of animal communication. Cambridge: Bradford/MIT Press.
  • Maynard Smith, John and David Harper (1995). Animal signals: Models and terminology. Journal of Theoretical Biology 177: 305-311.
  • Maynard Smith, John and David Harper (2003). Animal signals. Oxford University Press, UK.
  • McFarland, D. (1999). Animal Behaviour. Pearson Education Limited, UK.
  • Otte, D. (1974). Effects and functions in the evolution of signaling systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systemat- ics 5:385–417.
  • Saleh, N et al. (2007) Distinguishing signals and cues: bumblebees use general footprints to generate adaptive behaviour at flowers and nest. Arthropod-Plant Interactions, 2007, 1:119–127
  • Schaefer, H. M. and  Braun, J. (2009). Reliable cues and signals of fruit quality are contingent on the habitat in black elder (Sambucus nigra). Ecology, 90(6), 2009, pp. 1564–1573.
  • Searcy, W. A., and S. Nowicki (2005). The evolution of animal communication. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA.
  • Tinbergen, N. (1952). The curious behavior of the stickleback. Scientific American December 1952.
  • Zahavi, A. (1975). Mate selection: a selection for a handicap. Journal of Theoretical Biology 53:204–214.


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Commands or Signals, Corrections or Punishers, Praise or Reinforcers

An Australian Shepherd doing agility at the Ro...

Do you use signals or commands to communicate with your dog? (Image via Wikipedia)

Commands or signals, corrections or punishers, praise or reinforcers—does it matter what we call them?

If you think it doesn’t matter, there’s no need to read any further. If you think it does matter, please continue reading because I’d like to help you. I noticed some inconsistencies in contemporary dog training terminology  and will proceed to argue that they need correcting.  Trainers use too many terms that either are badly defined, not defined at all or already exist and mean something else.

Why is it important to agree on one single terminology? Because only then can we have a meaningful discussion and avoid falling out with people with whom we might otherwise like to cooperate.

For example, the majority of “positive” dog trainers have no problems using the word command and yet a command means “an authoritative direction or instruction to do something,” or “a line of code written as part of a computer program.” To command means “to exercise authoritative control or power over.” The word has connotations of the military, the police and of authority in general. Of course, we may use the word command but it beats me why we ban the terms dominance (without defining it properly) and punisher (whilst disregarding the correct, technical definition of the term) and use command with no concern whatsoever.

Personally, I have a problem with the use of command in dog training for several reasons. A command implies the obligation to execute a behavior in a very precise way. We give computers commands to execute actions in exactly the same way every single time, no variations allowed (that’s what we want from our computers). Army officers issue commands they want obeyed with no questions asked and disobedience is severely punished.

Is this what we want from our dogs? No, it is not. We want them to perform a behavior within a particular class of behaviors where variations are both inevitable and acceptable. There are many ways to sit correctly, but not many ways to “copy” or “paste”. The authoritarian aspect also bothers me; it implies subjugation. I don’t want my dog so much to obey me as to understand what I want him to do. The essence of communication is to convey information, not to enforce it. When we communicate, we use signals, and signals are understood, not obeyed and not commanded. I can’t say “I command you to understand.” A command is a signal before becoming a command, only we don’t need to issue commands to our dogs if we’ve done our job properly.

Signal seems to me undoubtedly the right term and has much better connotations than command. Your dog is not a computer, nor a soldier (PS—I have nothing against computers nor soldiers).

The same goes for the term punisher. You’ll find “positive” trainers using the word command without blinking, but demonizing you if you dare as much as whisper the word punisher, which doesn’t make any sense at all to me. If we are sensitive about the connotations of one term, it seems that we would also be sensitive about those of the other. Whilst blithely employing the word command, some trainers substitute punisher with correction, which doesn’t make any difference, it still means the same and is interchangeable with punisher in some senses.

Then, there is praisePraise means “an expression of approval and commendation,” “applaud,” “pay tribute to,” “compliment.” It is true that praise can influence learning in humans, but I doubt it very much that it has any value in animal training. Praise and reinforcer are two different things. We use reinforcers in dog training, not praise. “Positive” animal training claims to be a more humane way of training animals (meaning showing compassion or benevolence), to be more scientific than the “old-fashioned” training, and to know all about “classical conditioning” and “operant conditioning.” If this is true, why don’t we show it and educate people accordingly? Why don’t we use the proper scientific terms?

Some claim that the right scientific terms are too difficult. I fail to see what’s more difficult in reinforcer than in reward, in signal than in command, but even if it were true, this appears to me to be one of the situations where the end justifies the means. It would be a small price to pay in order to gain more clarity and avoid misunderstandings. Using technical terms instead of everyday words would also help people fully understand and use the various learning tools correctly. Sometimes, in trying to simplify things, we miss the point completely. Most dog owners don’t know that praise in dog training means “everything that increases the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior when presented simultaneously or immediately after the behavior takes place” (= reinforcer). Dog owners are not more stupid than dog trainers and if the latter can learn it, so can the former. It’s up to us to motivate them. We were all dog owners before we became dog trainers. Did we like condescending dog trainers back then?

As far as I can see, we only have two options: (1) to claim that it doesn’t matter what we call things, in which case nobody should be labelled for using terms such as punisher, dominance, etc., and we can all be “positive” nevertheless; (2) to use, teach, encourage and propagate the use of correct, well-defined terms, starting with ourselves, in order to be consistent with ideology and methodology.

Personally, I am not worried by the terms you use and I will not label you solely on your choice of words. The only concern I have is that (unless I know you) when you say command I’m not so sure you know about the intricacies of signals, and when you say praise I’m not certain that you fully appreciate the function of reinforcers (and punishers). I understand that you don’t like the word punisher because you are a good person, but I’m not sure that this is the right way to manifest it. Changing a term doesn’t change an attitude. Sometimes, quite on the contrary, if you used the word punisher, you’d have an opportunity and a reason to emphasize that it has nothing to do with violence and abuse.

On the other side, I do have worries that we label good, humane, “positive” dog trainers otherwise because of their correct use of the scientific terms; and that we label good, humane, “old-fashioned” trainers abusive due to their ignorance of the terminology that is fashionable nowadays. Before you even think of labeling me on the basis of my comments here, I would like to remind you that my first book on dog training, published in 1984 and entitled “The Dog, Our Friend—Psychology rather than Power,” was a revolution in dog training at the time; it was the first book (as far as I know) to describe exactly how to teach a dog sit, stand, down, come, heel, jump, slalom, treat-on-the-nose, retrieve, etc., without the use of any force at all. I showed even pictures of the clicker (except that we used a whistle) and of the precursor of these so fashionable toys that you fill with treats to stimulate the dog. Since then, many have followed in the same spirit: respect for the dog as a species and as an individual.

The bottom-line is that we should define terminology and implement it consistently. As it stands now, I’m afraid we’ll lose many good people for our cause of “a better world for dogs and dog owners” because of fashionable trends and pettiness.

Think about it.

Keep smiling,