Saturday, January 15, 2022

Shaping Exercises

What the Heck is Shaping?

Simply put, shaping is all about leading your dog down the correct path to a goal by slowly take steps from Point A where your dog currently is to Point B where you want your dog to be.  For example, I want to be able to position Azul anywhere around me with a simple hand target.  But I couldn't just toss a hand target out and hope that Azul decided to hit it, that would not be planning for success!  Instead I used a shaping exercise.

Step 1: Teaching the dog to touch my hand that is holding a treat.
Step 2: Presenting the hand in front of the dog without a treat.
Step 3: Adding a cue to the behavior.
Step 4: Changing the location of the hand target slightly; left, right, up, down in small steps.
Step 5: Changing hands, getting dog to move to my left side then my right side.

Starting to get the picture?  Each time I make a slight change to my expectation or criteria for earning reinforcement.  If the dog offers any behavior other then the current step I'm after, I quietly ignore it and patiently wait for the right behavior.  By offering choices of different behaviors, the dog learns what will earn the reinforcement the quickest, then by repeating that new behavior that becomes the normal thing to do.

Shaping exercises are most challenging for us people to learn how to use, but for our dogs it makes learning easy relying on their natural brain/thinking patterns that help them survive and thrive in a people world.  One of the key points to effective shaping is working the dog that is in front of you.  While one dog might work through steps 1-10 in one session, another dog (or that same dog a different day) might only make it through 3 steps in one session.  If you move to slow or too fast through the steps, the dog can become frustrated and give up being unsure of what you expect them to do.

The 10 Laws of Shaping - developed by Karen Pryor

  1. Raise criteria in increments small enough so that the subject always has a realistic chance of reinforcement.  
  2. Train one aspect of any particular behavior at a time. Don't try to shape for two criteria simultaneously. 
  3. During shaping, put the current level of response on a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement before adding or raising the criteria.
  4. When introducing a new criterion, or aspect of the behavioral skill, temporarily relax the old ones.
  5. Stay ahead of your subject: Plan your shaping program completely so that if the subject makes sudden progress, you are aware of what to reinforce next.
  6. Don't change trainers in midstream. You can have several trainers per trainee, but stick to one shaper per behavior.
  7. If one shaping procedure is not eliciting progress, find another. There are as many ways to get behavior as there are trainers to think them up.
  8. Don't interrupt a training session gratuitously; that constitutes a punishment.
  9. If behavior deteriorates, "Go back to kindergarten." Quickly review the whole shaping process with a series of easily earned reinforcers.
  10. End each session on a high note, if possible, but in any case quit while you're ahead.
This might seem kind of daunting, but think of them more as guidelines to setting up your shaping plan for success.  Then if something isn't working, look back at these guidelines to see where you may have something that is interfering with your session.

Creating your Shaping Plan

Since you are going to start with a behavior your dog already does, you need to define that behavior to develop Step 1 of your Shaping Plan.  What can your dog already do?  Break the action you want to teach into small steps toward your final goal.  Teach through each step, with a back up plan in place so you don't get stuck on any one step.  Always end on a high note!  If the last step you are aiming at isn't working, step back a step or two to end at place where your dog can be successful and revisit your plan to see if you might be missing a step.

I'm going to use a shaping exercise that I developed for teaching Cam to retrieve items.  Cam had an aversion to putting people things in his mouth due to being taught as a pup NOT to chew on people things.  This created a hurdle I had to get over!  Here is a full write up of how I taught Cam to retrieve if you'd like to read it.  The steps I had to take to overcome the hurdle had to be really small.

Baby Step 1 - treat for sniffing

Baby Step 2 - treat for moving the meds bottle with his nose.

Baby Step 3 - treat for picking the meds bottle up more than an inch


Repeat Baby Steps 1-3 with 2-3 repetitions for each.

Baby Step 4 - treat for hand delivery, at this point I basically moved my hand to his mouth as he was still only picking it up about an inch. Repeating 4-5 times


Repeat Baby Steps 1-4 with 1-3 repetitions for each.

Baby Step 5 - Tossed the meds bottle off to the side to encourage Cam to move his head to my hand instead of me moving my hand towards his head.


You see Cam needed a whole ton of encouraging and reinforcement to get started on this shaping plan! We also needed to set up for success, meaning we had to find a low distraction environment where it was just Cam and me with no one around to interrupt us. Now I'm wishing I had taken the time to set up a video camera to record these sessions because after 4 yrs of trying to teach this using various techniques, I was finally able to achieve my goal with shaping.

Here is a video of Cam retrieving a raw egg for your enjoyment!



Shaping exercises can be a very helpful training resource to have in your tool belt if you can learn to use them effectively. Getting started can be challenging, but you will learn to step away from the "cookie cutter" approaches to dog training and into a world of teamwork that will help you and your dog become the best you can be if you embrace shaping exercises.


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