A neutral stimulus or cue is anything that has absolutely no meaning to an animal until it has been conditioned to have meaning. A great example of this is the clicker used in clicker training, or a whistle used in positive reinforcement training. The clicker and whistle mean nothing to an animal when first introduced to it. They have no idea that the sound should be a positive thing. You have to first condition the animal to understand the clicker is a good thing. This is done by simply making the sound of the device and feeding the animal a treat, over and over again. When the animal begins to respond to the sound, then it has been conditioned to understand its meaning. Pavlov’s dog sound familiar to you now? The ringing of the bell means nothing to a dog, but after it being paired with delicious food, when the dog would hear the bell ring, it would start to salivate.
A neutral cue is like a command. Your dog has no idea what the word “sit” means, or if you use a hand gesture to mean “sit”, it has no idea what that means either when first presented. You have to teach your dog what that means, which is essentially what animal training is about. We spend an awful lot of time turning neutral stimuli and cues into things that have a lot of meaning to the animal. The results are extremely rewarding.
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