Tuesday, November 22, 2011

To shape or not to shape

When I wrote yesterday about teaching Phoenix to do “scratch” go-outs by shaping the behavior, I thought, wow, that was so easy, he enjoys doing it and it appears to transfer well to new environments. So why didn’t I shape ALL his obedience behaviors?

Well, there are a couple of reasons.

The primary one being I am not patient enough.

The way I understand it, training by shaping largely means waiting for the dog to offer a behavior that is vaguely related to what you want, then you can reward that behavior and progress until the dog eventually gives you what you want. That is probably an over-simplified explanation but you get the idea.

I always want the maximum return on my training time, so even with the behaviors I have successfully shaped with Phoenix, I did everything I could to set him up to succeed. I don’t know if this is “real” shaping or not, because I was controlling a lot of the variables and limiting some of the things he could offer. He has a repertoire of silly tricks, fun go-outs and killer weave poles, all the result of shaping.

But I think the real reason I don’t shape everything (and once again, it’s connected to patience), is that there are some behaviors that I want performed in a specific way and I prefer to cut to the chase, so to speak, in order to ensure the dog learns them the correct way right from the start with as few forays into gray zones of confusion as possible.

For me, this usually means initially luring to make the behavior happen, combined with hands-on positioning to get what I want. I’m not saying you can't get a tight tuck sit or a sphinx down by purely shaping it. I’m saying I choose not to shape those behaviors because I feel there is another way I can help the dog learn what I want quickly and clearly without allowing him to experiment with a lot of different variables. Teaching positions (sit, down, stand) and how to get from one position to another with speed and precision is a critical element in foundation training and quite frankly, I’m not willing to take chances with any variations on theme. (Maybe if I were more adept with shaping this would be different. Just sayin.’)

As soon as my dog shows me he understands what to do (example: tuck his butt forward on the sit, not rock back or roll on a hip) the luring and/or positioning will fade quickly. I don’t want them to become a crutch that we are never able to move beyond.

On the other hand, there are some skills that fairly scream to be shaped, but again it depends on the handler’s overall approach to training and what she is willing to embrace: shaping vs luring vs compulsion/force. Retrieves are prime for shaping and so is heeling. The more I learn about it, the more I want to try with the next dog.

Like any other training method, shaping is only as effective as the trainer who employs it. I’ve seen too many people attempting to “clicker train” dogs who are wandering away from them, sniffing, bored, distracted and clueless while the trainer becomes frustrated and disillusioned. I want to tell them another method might be more appropriate and yield better results in a manner both dog and handler would enjoy more. It's not about latching on to what's popular on today's training scene, it's about what finding what works for you and your dog.

If you have lousy timing or ask for too much, too fast or never move beyond rewarding the initial behavior, shaping will not yield brilliant success. Of course, you can screw up other training methods by doing the same things so it’s six of one and half-dozen of the other. Shaping, clickers and cookies are not miracle answers - they require an element of patience and clear vision on the human end of the process, as well as a dog who is capable of having an original thought and is allowed to think without being led around by a cookie.

I’ve done enough shaping with Phoenix that he’s pretty good at trying different behaviors to see what gets rewarded. It’s fun to teach him new stuff that way because he has to think and figure it out himself, not just sit in a lump and wait for a cookie to appear so he can follow it. I DO like having a "thinking" dog but there are still certain aspects of life and training where mental free-styling is not needed and I need him to understand that I will make some decisions for him about how things are done. My overall goal is a balance that keeps my dog happy to work and eager to learn.

So the bottom line on why I haven’t shaped ALL his obedience skills is that there are a lot of different ways to teach things and I think some are better suited to certain methods than others. It’s good to have a lot of tools in my toolbox and it’s good to learn how to use new tools.


  1. My first attempt at shaping was teaching Legend to retrieve the dumbbell. I tried it because she was obviously not going to have it any other way I was familiar with. It worded fantastic and this remains her best exercise in the ring. I think this means I should probably do more shaping with her but like you said-patience!

  2. My new puppy has been shaped for some things, lured for others. I believe in hands on for a number of reasons and the biggest is because I want my dog accustom to being handled! Touch is very powerful and I don't want my dogs to pull away from it. What I have are dogs that touch ME and invite me to play/train (and training is play as you well know). So add me as one who uses clickers the way you do (and like you I'm not patient enough to "wait" for some semblance of the behavior to present itself).

  3. i read this a while back and wanted to comment but alas... my blogger issues... but yes, i couldn't agree more. i don't think i could shape with juno. except maybe her roll over because she did that on her own and it was easy to just simply mark and treat. but with loki? omg, i could shape with him too... and if i were a much better trainer, it would be probably a great method for him. but I am not consistent, have terrible timing. When we worked with Denise Fenzi, man she was amazing in her timing. i was constantly in awe at how fast she was. i couldn't keep up and i'm an "east coaster" who lived in new york and could talk fast! She shaped his ability to ignore food/distraction from nearby person. he did it so beautifully that she had trouble working with him later if she tried to handle him! so she wouldn't handle him after that simply because it worked so well. but it was pure shaping. beautiful. I only had a handful of lessons with Denise (7 or 8 lessons maybe tops) but those stuck in my head so well. It's almost like magic when a dog learns something that well.