Archive for July, 2009

The Power of “Shaping”

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

For those of you not fluent in “clicker” language, shaping is a process wherein you “click” (thus telling the dog – yes – that’s exactly what I want) for tiny approximations toward your goal behavior. It is a powerful, powerful tool.

Let’s say I want to train Micah to make a figure 8 around two traffic cones. First I would click him for just looking at the cone(s). I will usually click twice for the same behavior. Then the third time he looked at the cones I would just wait (and NOT click). I would wait for him to offer SOMETHING ELSE. More than likely he would take a step toward one of the cones and I would click again. The next step would be for him to actually get close to one of the cones, and I would click for that.

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Then he might turn back toward me, asking “is that what you wanted?” No click for turning back toward me. So he would probably go and sniff the cone, for which I would click again. Then I would withhold the click until he made just the slightest movement toward the back of it. Click! As he starts to move around the back of the cone – click again.

Hopefully you’re getting the idea of how shaping works. The process of getting him to go around the 1st cone took about 2 minutes. Getting the figure 8 around both cones took less than 10 minutes. I dare say I would have had a hard time training that behavior in 10 minutes with any other method.

Dogs that get “shaped” on a regular basis are pretty savvy on how to play the game. Instead of just standing there looking at you – waiting for you to “lure” them into position, (or better yet, physically push them into position such as pushing a dogs butt to the ground for a sit), you get a dog that thinks “hmmmm – what can I do to get mommy to make that clicking sound”, and will try behaviors on their own. They will actually search out ways to make the clicker “click”. The science of behavior has proven that when a dog makes a conscious decision, it releases endorphins in the brain. This is a very good thing! The behavior sticks because they have learned it ON THEIR OWN. THEY did something that caused the click, and hence the reward (be it food, or play or praise). They learn NOTHING by having their butt pushed to the ground, and they learn PITIFULLY LITTLE (I would guess virtually nothing) by leading them with a treat in front of their nose. In fact, the treat in front of the nose (for most dogs with a pulse) mainly makes them deaf, dumb and blind to much of anything else.

I can’t emphasis enough what a HUGELY powerful tool shaping is. If you want to prove it to yourself – conduct a little experiment in “free shaping”. Get out your clicker and some yummy treats and just wait for your dog to do something – anything. If he hears something and he turns his head to the left – click. If he sneezes – click. If he lies down – click. (The only things that I would NOT click would be behaviors that you don’t want such as barking, etc).

What he will start to understand is that, HE is somehow causing you to click (and reward). Just play the game for 2 to 3 minutes and then end with a “good dog” and maybe a short game of tug.

The next time you get out the clicker, he will start offering even more behaviors. Experiment with putting various objects on the floor. Will he put a paw on it? Will he touch his nose to it? Will he pick it up and fling it across the room? These are all behaviors that can be put on “cue” or command. You may ask, why would I want to put a head turn, or a fling across the room on cue. Why would I want my dog to do that? Quite simply, the more a dog learns, the easier learning becomes. And if you want to get a little creative, you can do some pretty interesting things with a few simple behaviors strung together.

Don’t forget – just like people – dogs need mental stimulation, as well as physical exercise. Learning is fun, and will make him a better, more enjoyable dog. I promise!!!!

Happy Training!