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.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Capturing, Luring & Backchaining


Capturing is where you wait for your dog to do a behavior you like and reinforce that behavior to increase that chances that the dog will choose that behavior more frequently in the future.  Every time your dog does a behavior that you want to be repeated, you simply reinforce it appropriately with food, petting or praise. Once your dog is repeating the behavior a few times a day, you can start to add in the cue word you want for the behavior. Then once the dog understands the cue you can lure them into position. And finally you can start to proof that behavior by calling for it in various environments.

For example: I want Azul to calmly lay by me during meal time.  So when he was very young, I rewarded him with kibble for laying calmly while I ate.  We did this in a variety of places; near the kitchen table, near me on the couch, in the car, etc.  Slowly I phased out the kibble and switched to a larger reward at the end of my meal.

I also did the same thing when we were visiting with friends.  Azul could get up and play, sniff, whatever when he chose to.  But if he chose to lay calmly at my side, he got rewarded with kibble and petting. 

Science has proven that animals will continue to do behaviors that are reinforced.  Capturing in training sessions is based on that principle.  You basically ignore behaviors you don't like, such as putting their puppy paws on you and reward a calm sit by your feet.  If you don't reinforce good behaviors, the things you don't want such as jumping on people often become self reinforcing because it doesn't take long to learn that jumping on people will get a response.  It might be cute for a puppy but if you don't want a full grown adult dog to do a behavior, don't reinforce it.  It's much easier to do this with young puppies but even older adults can learn by capturing the good behaviors you want and ignoring or preventing the behaviors you don't want repeated.


Luring is commonly the first type of training we do with young puppies and most of us do it whether we realize it or not. So I'm going to talk about this from the puppy perspective. But it's also important that luring doesn't become your only training method or you really limit yourself and your dog's ability to learn.

Keep in mind that puppies need to be puppies, so keep expectations realistic for your pup's age & breed. Second, there is more to training a pup than teaching them cues/commands to obey.  And finally all dogs are different so move at your pup's pace.

The very first thing to teach a puppy often comes up.  For me, that's relationship building.  I start with teaching pup that good treats (even kibble) comes from my hands.  I start this on day one, sometimes before we even make it home.  I don't use any words, but maybe some fun playful noises and/or puppies name.  Each time the pup looks at you, present your hand very close to the pup's nose.  Eventually you can hold your hand further away and pup will look for your hand when making that sound or say their name.  That's step 1 in creating a strong bond.  And that leads to step 2 and warming up your pup's brain for future learning using the luring technique.

Step 2 is using luring to get behaviors that you eventually want to put on cue.  Holding a treat slightly above the puppies head and slowly moving it toward pup's back can be a great way to lure the pup into a sitting position.  Trainers often use the phrase, "Don't name it, till you love it!"  Or in other words don't start adding the cue until you can successfully lure your pup into the position you want.  I use this training method to teach young pups several positions.  And this brings us to #3.

Step # 3 is choosing the order in which you train specific behaviors and you can use luring to your advantage if you focus on behaviors your puppy enjoys doing naturally. There is no hard and fast correct way to train your pup.  No two pups are exactly the same.  Nothing says teach sit the first week, down the second, etc.  Watch your pup and how well you can communicate with each other.  If a pup offers a down before a sit, work on that first.   This also means don't compare your pup to your neighbor's or other people online.  You are different, your pup is different, so don't force yourself to stick to someone else's timeline.  Enjoy your puppy & let your puppy be a puppy with lots of playtime, bonding, and finding out what works for you.

And this doesn't mean that you can only use luring to train early basic behaviors! As you grow as a team, you learn how to encourage your dog to make good choices and often you will use luring to provide that encouragement. Teaching a dog to touch a hand target can help you expand your luring technique without using a food lure all the time.

Back Chaining

Another term commonly used when discussing capturing is "back chaining." Back chaining behaviors can be used with different training methods, but it's simplest to start during capturing training. If you want to teach your dog to go potty on cue, you often start giving your cue while your puppy is going potty then as time progresses you back up your cue earlier and earlier until you can give the cue and your puppy will almost immediately go potty.

Another form of back chaining involves linking behaviors together by teaching the last behavior first and working backwards until the whole chain has been taught. A great example of this is the hand delivered retrieve that is commonly taught in 4 stages; pick up the object, hold it in your mouth, bring it to me, and drop the object in my hand. It doesn't really matter which order you teach each of those behaviors independently, but when creating the behavior chain you really want to start with the last one first which is often the hardest, drop.

Now this might should challenging because how can you teach drop if your dog doesn't put things in their mouth. That's a very valid point! If your dog was trained to not chew on people things at an early age, they may really struggle with even picking up any item in the first place. That's a case of where you may not want to use back chaining. Another example of when NOT to use back chaining is when the end behavior is more complex the the starting behavior. I have trick called "take a nap" which is a basic twist on play dead but it requires the dog to first lay down, then either place their head down on the floor or lay on their side in a relaxed position and hold still until they are released to wake up. I can't very well teach my dog to lay with his head down until I my dog already knows how to lay down on cue. And I can't very well teach my dog to hold still in this position until I can get them more comfortable in this position.

So when would I use back chaining for teaching a complex behavior? The simple answer is any time I want to expand on what my dog already knows to bump it up to the next level. Think back to the puppy stage, at first you watched them like a hawk and rushed them out the door to go potty at an slight signal they may need to go. But eventually you want to be able to teach them to give you some kind of a signal that they need to go so you don't have to watch them like a hawk. Then as they get older, you may need a different signal that can be given in different environments when your not at home, especially if you travel with your dog like I do. You can also use back chaining to increase distance or time to a behavior that is already known. For example, I teach my dogs to find the car, first at home in my driveway then in parking lots. Once they can find the car, I start going from the checkout lane to the car until they are successful in that. Then I add the step of finding the checkout lane from various locations in the store. Then if I need to make an hasty exit, I can tell me dog to find the car from nearly anywhere in the store and they will take me past the checkouts to the car. I can then use this teach other common places that I may need to go regularly like finding a bathroom or a chair to sit in. I know this steps more into the Service Dog world with advanced training, but the method of back chaining is used in teaching many dog sports and competitions too. Learning to use back chaining effectively will really up your training abilities.

Here is a short video of how I taught Azul to settle at my feet, under my chair or under a table while I eat my meals. This video demonstrates luring Azul as a young puppy with food. But since I also captured this behavior regularly once the behavior was learned it because second nature and now is an automatic behavior that just happens without the need for reinforcement all the time. He does still get reinforced for doing it regularly, he just doesn't need it all the time!

Plan your Training Sessions


Creating your training plan for a 3 month, 1 year, or whatever length of time is only the first step in the process to becoming more successful as a team.  The next few posts in my series "Plan for Success" is going to be all about setting up successful training sessions.  You have to be able to take your bigger picture plan and now figure out how that applies to where you and your dog are today.  And the best way to do that is to decide which training method you plan to use to accomplish your goals.  Here are a few examples:

Luring is the most commonly used training style where you use a treat or other reinforcement to lead to your dog to do what you want them to do.  To get a sit, you use a food lure near the puppies nose, raising it slowly and as the nose goes up the rear end goes down.  Repeating a few times until you get consistency, then start teaching the cue that goes with that action.

Capturing is one of my favorite techniques because you simply reinforce the things your dog naturally does to encourage them to do it more often.  Your young puppy chooses to lay down by your feet, you give them a belly rub or a small food reward and go back to what you were doing.  If they stay there, you reinforce again every few minutes until they chose to get up and move away at which point the reinforcement stops.  I use this method to reinforce heel and recall as well!

Shaping is relatively new to the dog training world and is all the rage among the best trainers!  For shaping you basically start where you and your dog is at working toward taking baby steps to slowly move up the staircase from steps 1, 2, 3...until you reach the end point.  This is a simplified explanation, but there will be another post on this topic later this week! 

There are other methods as well, but this gives an idea of the most common possible ways to teach a dog to repeat a behavior.

Choosing the Environment

This is a huge part of whether or not your session will be successful!  You need to examine your training area thoroughly before you begin the session.  What you look for will depend on your dog, so here a few things to keep in mind.

When training something completely new, especially if it's more difficult, it's always best to do this in a very low distraction environment.  It's nearly impossible to create a no distraction environment, but there are a few things you can do to help reduce distractions in environments that you can control. 

  • Block access to your training area with gates, chairs, or other objects to prevent your dog from leaving and other dogs or people from walking through while your training.  My dogs are trained to hold a place while I'm working with the other dog.  But no matter what I do, I can't seem to prevent the humans from walking through our training area...and I live in a very quite household!
  • Pick up any unwanted distractions.  If your dog is really into tug toys like Azul is, picking up the tugs can help him focus on me but balls laying on the floor are not a distraction.  You may not need a totally distraction free room to hold your session, but for sure remove any items that you know are going to be extremely distracting.  If you are using these items in your session, keep them up and out of the way until you are ready for them.
  • Limit outside interference.  I use my phone to record my training sessions, so my phone is always in the room.  Yet setting my phone to silent so that it's not beeping and buzzing during the session, distracting me even if it doesn't distract my dog, is a big help.  Another tip, when using my phone to record is I will set up before I start and then just let it record for the whole session instead of trying to start it and stop it aiming to get that perfect video that I can share.  If you want your dog to be totally engaged with you during the session, you need to commit to being totally engaged with them during the session.
Once my dog is doing the behavior I'm after, I will start slowing adding distractions back in.  To do that, I start right in my training area by allowing distractions to move around us; dogs and people we are used to is my first step.  Then I might add some other mild distractions in that environment before moving to other rooms of the house to start generalizing the behavior.  

I will also have future posts next week about generalizing behaviors in multiple environments!

Choosing the Reinforcement

Often trainers refer to reinforcement as a paycheck for doing the job.  While this is a simple explanation of what reinforcement is, I'm not really a fan of this analogy because it then implies that you can also bribe your dog to get what you want.  My end goal is that my dogs see value in doing what I want them to do and will choose to do this whether or not reinforcement is immediately available.  But as trainers we walk a fine line of trying to figure out when to use reinforcement correctly and efficiently without becoming reliant on needing to constantly being able to produce treats to get the correct behavior.  Learning to use alternative forms of reinforcement has been a challenge for me, but has also made me a much better trainer.  Here are a few of my best reinforcement tips:
  • Treats are by far the easiest reward to use when training new behaviors!  Especially if you are luring, capturing, or shaping behavior.  This why so many people get stuck here.  It's easy and it works most of the time.
  • Toys are a bit harder to learn to use in training sessions and comes with additional challenges that are not involved with using treats.  Toys make it easier to add speed to behaviors your dog already knows.  If your dog is ball motivated and your working on recall, tossing that ball between your legs can easily get a slightly distracted dog to recall to you very quickly.  Since Azul loves tug, I've used this to reinforce tons of positions around me and switching between those positions rapidly simply by capturing those positions in our tug sessions.  Learning to use toys are reinforcement takes some practice, but it something every dog owner can learn and will help improve your team work much faster then relying on food rewards for everything.
  • Talking as a reinforcement can be difficult to harness but surely the most easy way to provide reinforcement in real life situations.  Let's face it, most of us talk to our dogs and most of us like it when someone gives us a compliment so telling our dogs "Good Dog" seems like it is too simple.  But with some thought, this praise can be used to your advantage to get more out of your training sessions if you put some thought into your timing and how praise is offered.
  • Touching is also reinforcing for many dogs, but definitely not the place to start with dogs that you haven't already developed a relationship with.  I use touching in the form of belly rubs with my young puppies as a reinforcement for choosing to lay down near me or snuggle with me.  This helps build value for the physical contact.  If you haven't taught your dog to love your touches, it's not going to be an effective reinforcement for you.
Learning what your dog loves and how to use that as a reinforcement during your training sessions and real life situations will definitely help you plan future training sessions more successfully.  I'm going to posting more on reinforcement, I'm just not sure when I will get around to that.  Stay tuned this week to learn more about using this information to set up successful training sessions that will expand the teamwork between you and your dog.

For your entertainment, here is a video of Azul and I using tug as a reinforcement for capturing basic behaviors.  Keep in mind that none of these behaviors are new to Azul, we are simply practicing known behaviors to keep our reinforcement history high.

July Party Schedule

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