Whole Dog Journal Tips June 23, 2014

(When Pigs Fly #1) Shape, Rattle and Roll Fundamentals of Shaping Behaviors

In this chapter you are going to learn a fun and effective way to teach your dog new skills using a process called “shaping”. Shaping involves slicing the behavior you want your dog to do into tiny pieces, successively clicking and treating each “slice,” until you have built up the finished behavior you want to train.

Here is how shaping works. Imagine you are looking at a frame-by-frame motion picture of your dog picking up a tennis ball. What would the first frame be? Probably turning his eyes towards the ball. Then maybe a direct stare at the ball. Then lowering his head towards the ball. Then about six more frames where his head gets progressively lower and lower. Then touching his nose to the ball, then opening his mouth, then putting his mouth around the ball, then closing his mouth around the ball, then lifting his head for about six more frames. Each of these “frames” is called an approximation - a little step towards the finished behavior or picking up a ball. If you want to teach your dog to pick up a ball by shaping it, you progressively click and treat all of the “approximations” that I have described above in this way:

1. The first step is the dog turning his eyes towards the ball. After you have clicked and treated that glance toward the ball couple of times, your dog will start offering it. By “offering it”, I mean he will deliberately glance towards the ball in an attempt to make the clicker go off.
2. Once your dog is firmly and deliberately offering the glance towards the ball, you can hold out and not click it. Your dog will keep trying the glance, and then, when he sees that it is not paying off, he will offer “improvements” on that behavior, like a bit of a head turn in that direction. Voila! You have frame number two, the head turn, which you can start click and treating.
3. Again, once your dog is firmly and deliberately offering the head turn, hold out for any tiny lowering of his head. Click and treat that a few times, and then, when you are sure he is offering a bit of a head bob, hold out for a bigger head bob. Again, when reinforcements are not forthcoming, your dog will offer different ‘improvements” on the head bob, which will eventually included lowering his head toward the ball more than he had before. You continue this way, reinforcing and then holding out for more through the rest of the “frames” of the “movie” of your dog picking up the ball.

For more advice on training impossible (and not-so-impossible) dogs purchase Jane Killon’s When Pigs Fly! Training Success with Impossible Dogs from The Whole Dog Journal.