I’m often asked why I use shaping when my dogs already know so many cued behaviors. My answer is that, besides being fun and creative for me, the trainer, shaping teaches my dogs to think. And this greater cognitive capacity makes their future learning of more advanced or complex skills quicker and easier.
Improved communication, the excitement of shaping something from nothing, and seeing that look of joy on your dog’s face when he “gets it.” It’s a win-win-win! So, my question is, why aren’t you using shaping more in your training? Read on for some suggestions for creating successful shaping sessions.
How collaboration with your dog leads to stronger behaviors
If it sounds like a brain teaser, that’s because it is. How do you train (insert any behavior your dog is physically able to do) without cueing or touching your dog to show him what you want?
The answer is shaping! By allowing your dog to make choices while you observe keenly, mark precisely and reward generously, you can build strong behaviors together. And just like a brain teaser, shaping not only improves our pup’s ability to think, it makes us think, too. The only limitation on what behaviors can be shaped is your imagination! So, let’s get started.
1. Make a plan. Shaping is creative, but it’s not careless. In order to decide on appropriate criteria, you need to have a clear picture of what you want the finished behavior look like in mind. Have an idea of how that finished behavior can be broken down into its smallest components of behavior. These are your criteria. But be flexible! Your dog may have a better way of getting to the finish line.
2. Get moving. If you don’t have a very operant dog, getting him to offer behavior might be a challenge. In many situations we want our dogs to wait for us to tell them what they need to do in order to get a reward. But with shaping, the dog should be rewarded for offering any movement on his own- no matter how small. Be mindful of your posture and gaze as these may unconsciously be cueing your dog to wait. Giving your release cue or tossing a treat might be necessary to get your dog moving at first.
3. Watch closely. Once your pup feels free to start making his own choices, be ready to mark and reward small movements. Once your dog catches on and is in the game, you will begin to set, raise and lower criteria based on your observations. Remember, the steps in your plan are guides, not requirements. Your dog does not need to hit every step to be successful. Your goal is to observe and mark behavior incrementally.
4. Avoid the ruts. While you’ll want to track improvement and success rates, it’s very easy to get stuck on one step waiting for perfection. But the longer the reward history, the more likely the dog is to keep repeating that step. A good rule of thumb is to raise criteria when your dog is reliably offering the current criterion.
5. Shift gears. Revising goals and criteria creatively as needed keeps the game moving along. Criteria shifts, or changes in what earns a click + treat, can be upward or downward depending on the behavior you observe. Look for predictable criteria met with confidence before moving forward to the next step. If you get two reps that don’t meet criteria, or your dog appears confused, lower criteria. Letting the learner set the pace builds strong behaviors.
6. Reward that puppy! Remember, Shaping is a game. It should be fun for both you and your dog. Maintain a high rate of reinforcement. You want to allow pauses for your dog to consider his options. These spaces are where learning occurs. But you don’t want frustration to creep in as you stare one another down.
Are you ready to practice the method that strengthens teamwork and fosters reciprocal learning between dog and handler? Here’s an exercise from my upcoming shaping class for you to try. Share pictures or video in the Rally Free For All Facebook Group or on our Instagram @rallyfree4all