Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Playing with shaping

I’ve never done much with shaping when it comes to dog training. Oh, sure, a few things here and there but it’s never been my go-to technique for teaching obedience exercises. In fact, I think the only two things I have ever seriously, intentionally shaped were Phoenix’s weave poles and the “four feet in a box” trick — so I know it does work.

His weave poles are a thing of beauty - consistently fast and accurate. He rarely misses an entry, providing I do my part as a handler. The “four feet in a box,” well, that got me a dog who still tries to put all four feet in anything that faintly resembles a box. He’s nothing if not entertaining.

Earlier this week, I got home late from work one night and wanted to do something with Phoenix but didn’t have the ambition to tackle anything that might require a genuine expenditure of mental or physical energy. So I decided to try shaping him to go lie down on a crate pad.

Within three minutes, Phoenix was racing to the crate pad and plopping down on it. All with nothing but a clicker and treats. I didn’t say anything but “Yes!” and “Good boy!” as I delivered the food.

His progression was to poke the crate pad with his nose, bite it (this is standard operating procedure when presented with any new challenge), paw at it, put his front feet on it, put all four feet on it, sit on it and finally, lie down.

I was amazed at the speed at which he tried and discarded new behaviors to see what got rewarded and what didn’t. It was clear he liked doing this sort of thing and I enjoyed watching him work to solve the “problem” I’d presented him with.

His quick learning could be a reflection of several elements: Phoenix is a brilliant dog (high probability). I am a brilliant trainer (much lower probability). Phoenix already knew how to lie down and knew he might be rewarded for lying down, so he brought that to the table. He also knew how to “go” somewhere, since in the context of daily life and Utility exercises, he understands that going to specific places (crate, outdoor kennel, grooming table, into the van, go-out spot) gets rewarded. And since he’d never seen a crate pad laying on the patio before it was pretty obvious this was a special object and thus the focus of whatever was going on.

Was this truly shaping since he already had the necessary skills to perform this behavior and only needed to assemble them? The credit goes to his flexible little brain, since I was not saying anything or pointing to the crate pad or doing anything to indicate what I wanted except rewarding incremental moves toward the final desired behavior. He put it together on his own.

Will I start using shaping as a training tool for everything now? Probably not. Will I use it more? Possibly. With winter just around the corner (I’m firmly in denial, it’s been in the low 80s with blazing sunshine here all week!), I’ll be looking for mental games to play in the house when it’s too cold and dark to work outside.


  1. One of my favourite things to do with my dog is to sit down with a cup of kibble, a prop and a clicker. I don't say a word, and from the start of the session to the finish both my dog and I are having a great time.

    I think some degree of shaping is intrinsic to drilling already-known behaviours. Though I can't think of many formal obedience behaviours which I've "formally" shaped from start to finish.

    Tricks, agility and other games are a different story. Cohen's go-to behaviour is either putting her back feet on the object, or picking it up and doing a "beg" with it in her mouth. :)

  2. shaping becomes much easier for a dog who learns how to guess as a game in the first place. whenever i bring out the treats, whether i use shaping or luring, i always get guessing. sometimes if frankly doesn't matter if i do anything. they both "know" to do something. Loki the GSD Formosan will try new things while juno the sibe will pull out all her old tricks. sadly for me, as a horrible handler, i can't help but reward her adorable repeated efforts at behaviors that always charm everyone so training anything new for her always takes longer. i love the fact that they both "KNOW" the game. once they know the guessing game, it's very little work, but good timing on our part...

  3. I haven't (and don't) do a lot of official shaping, but I must have done something because Layla constantly offers new behaviors to try and figure out what I want. We're starting to do some clicker work for her holding her dumbbell. She holds other things (all the random crap she retrieves for me) but she mouths the dumbbell. Ugh.

  4. I have been playing with shaping with my new puppy (she falls between "The Great Plan" and "I wasn't looking for a puppy now" way of getting a puppy) and like you I only use it for certain things as a supplement to my training. What I see it doing is teaching her how to "try" and "want" to offer behaviors. I also think it is a great tool to keep them engaged since they control/drive the game. It is also fun to just sit back with clicker and treats and wait for things to happen!