The Girl with the Paper Hat (Part 1 of 2)

Hat made out of folded newspaper

Once upon a time there was a girl who decided to teach her dog some tricks. She figured out that if she gave her dog something he liked after he did something she liked, he was liable to do the thing again. So she taught him some simple tricks using food and playing with toys as reinforcement.

She and the dog had so much fun that she found as she went along that he didn’t need to be reinforced with goodies as often; he started finding playing training games with her very fun in itself. But she still used food and play, especially with new stuff or very difficult things. He liked earning his “pay” and she liked giving it to him.

It didn’t occur to her to tell the dog what to do in words, since she knew he didn’t speak English like she did. But things worked out because he could almost always discern from context and her gestures what she wanted to work on.

She had a little platform the she used to teach him to pivot in a circle. He would put his front feet on the platform and walk around with his back feet and rotate. He got very good at this and soon could spin in both directions. As soon as he saw the platform he would run over to it and start to spin, although she could ask him to stop with a hand signal.

One day she decided she’d like to teach him a new trick using the little platform. She wanted him to sit on it. She got out the platform and he ran over and immediately started spinning. She laughed and signaled for him to stop and he did.

With gestures she got him up on the platform with all four feet within a few minutes, and it was easy from there to get him to sit.

sable colored dog has her front feet on an inverted yellow plastic basin, preparing to spin her rear end aroundThe next time they played training games with the platform, he ran over again and started to spin. But she indicated to him that she wanted him to get up on it and sit, and he soon did. Each time they trained, he spun less and sat faster, until one day he ran in and sat on the platform. She told him how smart he was and gave him a cookie.

Over the next couple of weeks she had him do lots of things on top of the platform, and didn’t ask him to spin. He would always run to the platform and sit on it to start.

Then she asked him to start spinning again. They worked on both things equally. After a little awkwardness at the beginning, he always figured out what she wanted.

One day she set out to train and got the platform out. Her dog ran in and then stood stock still next to the platform and looked straight at her. He seemed to be asking, “What are we going to do today?” She realized it would be nice for him if he knew which thing she wanted him to do that day, rather than always having to figure it out by trial and error.

She thought about it and realized she could create some way to let him know which trick she wanted to work on. She made herself a silly hat out of newspaper. From then on, every time she wanted him to get all the way on the platform, she wore the paper hat. When she wanted to work on spinning and pivots, she didn’t wear the hat.

It took only a few sessions for him to catch on, and thereafter he would immediately offer the right starting behavior depending on whether she was wearing the hat or not.

Question: What did the girl create with the hat?

Answer: A cue.

What’s the Point?

OK, I’m a little obsessed with cues. But I would really like to share my (admittedly limited) understanding with those who are newer at this than I am.

  • First, all sorts of things can be cues. If you don’t create a deliberate, explicit one, dogs will usually figure out what you want from contexual cues. Before the girl started using the paper hat, there were still lots of cues for the dog. But they were fluid and not systematically organized.
  • You might not even know what a dog’s cue actually is! Lots of times when we think the dog understands a verbal cue, they are cuing off something else entirely. Try this: put your dog in front of her crate (if you use one), point, and say, “Purple cow!” Some other time, get your dog in front of the crate, don’t point, but just look at it, and say, “Daddy long legs!” Dogs notice contextual cues brilliantly, and most will get into the crate in this situation. If you had proofed the living daylights out of your crate cue and had complete stimulus control over it, as long as those two phrases aren’t your real cues, the “proper” response would be for the dog to stand and look at you, waiting for further instruction because he knew you had spouted nonsense. But almost no one puts crate or mat behaviors on stimulus control, so most dogs who are conditioned to like their crates will leap in at the slightest hint that that might be reinforceable right now.
  • Conversely, think of a situation in which you always, without fail, ask your dog to sit (with or without a verbal cue). Get them in that situation and give your verbal for down, stand, or another behavior and see what happens. If you have worked very hard with your dog on the distinction between your verbal cues, your dog might do fine. But most will have a bit of hard time.
  • Finally, cues in training or the real world don’t have to be quick words or movements. The “Open” sign that stays lit up all day in a store window is a cue that says that you can go in the store and shop for a while. When you’re at a club, the music going on is a duration cue for people to dance. Most people stop when the music goes off. You don’t have to, but it’s more fun (reinforcing) to dance while the music is on. So a paper hat, left on, can be a cue that a certain type of training is going to happen and a certain family of behaviors will likely be reinforced.

Here is Summer in a situation where the contextual cues and something called the Matching Law conspire to make her fail to respond correctly to a verbal cue. (Stay tuned for Part 2 on the Matching Law.)

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Having clear cues is a way to be fair to your dog. Remember, a cue is an indication that a certain behavior, set of behaviors, or behavior chain, is likely to be reinforced. Having unclear ones defeats the purpose. Help your dog by being very clear about it!

Coming Up:


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About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek.

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6 Responses to The Girl with the Paper Hat (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Mary Lynn says:

    Eileen, this post made me smile. I had a dog named Riley. Riley was Border Collie/Black Lab. He was a stray, that friends found, and even though we had two older (senior) pups, we decided to adopt Riley. He was approximately six months old. Riley and I clicked. Someday, I think he knew what I wanted him to do before I did. I taught him many tricks. We did the turn around right and left. (I liked your platform) and I also, had a small wooden stool in the kitchen. Now Riley was around 33 lbs. and somehow he would sit with all four legs and his butt on that small stool and watch me while I was in the kitchen. He always made me laugh. Riley passed away the day after Christmas 2013 from a bloodclot. He was three. We still have our Senior pups, 14 and 16 yrs and we adopted, this time a puppy, named Coal. He is also lab and possibly Shelty or Border Collie. He will be smaller than Riley. Even though he is young, we still connect. Hoping we have the same connection as I did with Riley. I know he would much rather be playing with his siblings. Thank you for helping Coal and I learn to communicate better. Love your blog.

    • Oh, thank you for sharing your sweet story about Riley. So very very sorry you lost him that young. They are never with us long enough, but losing a youngster is so heartbreaking. (My Clara is about to turn three. Just can’t imagine…)

      Thanks for your kind words, and I hope you and Coal have a wonderful connection as well.

  2. fearfuldogs says:

    You are a tease! When can we expect part 2? 🙂

  3. nickynockynoo says:

    Great post. Looking forward to part 2. I like the phrase Matching Law. A similar thing happened with George on the mat he always has his after dinner chewy on. When I do a down-stay with him, I ask for a down and then say “Roll your bum”, meaning lie on one hip. He does it beautifully in class, on the mat we use for him to lie on whilst I’m training Zoe, in the park and I thought just about everywhere. When he didn’t have a clue about doing it on his other mat, I just put it down to the behaviour not being generalised enough. I suppose it was because I would normally just ask for a sit or a down?
    I wonder if the same thing applies to him not wanting to play ball in the garden. As he was a winter puppy, we always played inside. He plays in the park ok but was taken there regularly anyway. On a nice day, I’ll try to play outside with him but he runs in with the ball as if to say “Here is where we play this game” Nothing scary in the garden, he loves to lie out there.

    • Nicola, about the behavior not being generalized enough: you made me realize that that is actually connected with the whole contextual cue thing. You could look on something not being generalized as it being lost in the “noise” of contextual cues.

      Interesting about not playing in the garden! Those puppy behaviors can really stick, can’t they! Thanks for writing.

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