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Learning the Skill (Art) of Shaping

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

This is me, with Cameo and her 2019 pups. I routinely use shaping with ALL the dogs in this photo.

In the video above, I am using shaping to work with eleven dogs, all at the same time, from outside their fields. Using shaping, I am able to train each dog individually, even though they are with their partners and within the sight and hearing of the other pairs of dogs. How is this possible?? I mark and reinforce small pieces of behaviors that I like and want to see more of.

To do this, I first get the attention of the dog I want to work with. With an experienced dog, I usually say his name. When he glances at me, I mark and reinforce him; I use a verbal marker word and verbal praise. The animal I am looking at knows the mark and reinforcement is for him. What I am doing with that dog is of no consequence to the other dogs around him because unless I speak their name or otherwise engage them, they know it isn’t about them. Then, I ask for a behavior I want from the dog I am looking at and mark and reinforce again, or I wait for a second or two to see if he’ll offer me a behavior I can thank him for. I may also say the dog’s name and mark and reinforce him for what he is currently doing, such as calming eating his dinner out of his own bowl. I do that VERY often with my dogs.

The skill of shaping is taught in the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Foundations course. There is no way I would attempt to teach it through blogs, but I can give you a practical example of how I use it daily, frequently, with most of my dogs.

Most behaviors are actually pieces of behavior chained together to form a finished behavior. Teaching a dog to sit on cue is a chain of behaviors. Teaching a dog to come when called is a chain of behaviors. Teaching a dog to go to his bowl and eat on cue is a chain of behaviors…….

I teach my pups complex behaviors, such as these, using a clicker as a marker and treats for reinforcement. I put these behaviors “on cue”; again, taught in the Foundations course. Once a dog has a behavior on cue, meaning that the dog understands the cue well and reliably responds to it as I have asked him to, I can use shaping out in the field to reinforce the known behavior. If I ask for a known behavior and don’t get it (I don’t get the entire finished behavior), I can use shaping to mark and reinforce an early portion of the known behavior. This is often enough of a clue to the dog about what behavior I had asked him for that he will then give me the complete, finished behavior.

My verbal marker word is “yessss.” My cue for eating is “go eat.” My word for letting the dog know he isn’t on the right track is “nope.” If I mark with yes and I want the dog to be calm, I say the word calmly. If I am going to cue a new behavior right after I mark this one, I use a lot of happy energy in the marker word. My word nope is softly spoken in a calm, no-energy voice. I use this word to interrupt behavior – I NEVER use this word with ANY punitive connotation. This word works for me and my feeble brain because I tend to remember how to use it on the fly.

When my dogs are eating, I stay nearby. In fields with livestock that might put pressure on the dogs, I stand near the dogs until they finish eating. When I am feeding dogs who may fuss with each other, I stay near them. Right now, as I supervise feeding nine eighteen-week-old pups, I stand in the middle of the area where I am feeding them.

In all these circumstances, I can use shaping to thank the dogs for eating as I have taught them to, I can interrupt them if they decide to go bother their partner, and I can ask them to go back to their bowl. To reinforce this behavior using shaping, I mark and reinforce a glance back at the dog’s bowl. The dog is likely to go on back and eat. If not, I pick another shaping point. If that doesn’t work, I do some remedial training, using shaping, to remind him that he does know how to give me what I am asking for and to build his confidence in himself.

This may be clear as mud if you are reading this and have not been exposed to the concept of shaping previous to now. To give you a different perspective, I’d like to share with you my most memorable experience with shaping.

I finished the Foundations course in July 2018. I had clicked my first dog a month prior to starting that course, so I still really didn’t have all that much experience as a clicker trainer, though I had a good start and was headed in the right direction.

In August 2018, I participated in a five-day, $1300 course held at the National Clicker Institute in Washington. The course was taught by Ken Ramirez; he is the Chief Training Officer for the Karen Pryor Clicker Training organization. The course was titled Training for Professionals: Across Species. There were twenty-five students in the course, some from as far away as England, Germany, Australia, and Japan. To say that I was the beginner clicker trainer in the course is the understatement of the century.

In this course, I was introduced to a clicker game that clicker trainers use to hone their shaping skills. I’ll share with you some of what this “game” was like for me.

The rules are simple. You have a person who is designated as the trainer. You have a person designated as the learner. The trainer picks a goal behavior to teach the learner, using only a clicker and some sort of physical reinforcement. We used beads as reinforcement that the learner collected and placed in a cup. No talking or prompting of any kind is allowed. Our trainer was to teach her learner to go and sit in a particular chair. Simple enough, right?

The learner enters the room and stands still. The learner looks around; click, as the glance is towards the chair. The learner comes to get the bead and then tries to remember what she did that got her paid. This goes on, through trial and error, for however long it takes. This is a little like playing Marco Polo or Hot-Cold. If the learner is having a good time, the process continues. If the learner becomes frustrated, the team takes a short break and begins again. The learner is clicked for glancing towards the chair, then taking a step, and then another, and then touching the chair, and then – finally – sitting in the chair.

I will tell you right hear that I am the most terrible learner animal in the history of ever! I was so afraid of making a mistake, particularly in the rarefied company I was in, that I was too frightened to move. If the learner/animal doesn’t move, there is nothing you can click for! When I did happen to move, just a little, and got clicked for something, I was so startled that after I retrieved my bead, I couldn’t remember how I had earned it. This is a lot of what it is like for correction-based dogs as they transition to learning clicker training. Dogs feel the pressure of trying to get it right, as people do. My trainer was incredibly patient and took me on as a challenge, so the worry I was feeling wasn’t caused by her. It was in my own head.

We played this game, in a variety of ways, over the five-day course interspersed with lectures and hands-on training with the resident animals at The Ranch. I became a pretty decent clicker game-shaping trainer, but I never was comfortable as the learner. The best learners are the ones who offer lots of behavior with creative abandon! Think puppy!

I was not creative; I was critical of myself and tried to “figure things out.” I looked for clues from my trainer, so a smile or a shift in her posture became distractions for me. Attempting to be the learner in this game creates tremendous empathy for the tasks we give our dogs every day. I also began to be aware of how much distraction I give my dogs as I try to “help” them. Grrr. As the trainer, it is flat amazing how far down into small pieces behaviors may need to be to make sense to the learner. The learner needs to have an 80% success rate; less than this creates fear and frustration in the learner. So, if the learner is making too many mistakes, it means the trainer’s shaping points are too broad.

This is a beast of a blog, so I am going to end it here. I felt pushed to write this blog now because I will begin to place Sarika’s 2021 pups over the next few months. It is critical to me that their new owners understand shaping. It isn’t an easy thing to sum up in a phone conversation or e-mail, even with students in the Foundations course.

I have been asked to give examples of how my new puppy owners will use this skill, on day one, in the first few minutes. This blog may help them, as they are current students of the Foundations course. For those of you who are reading this and are not students in the course, I hope I have piqued your interest just a bit. Using shaping with dogs is super fun. The dogs love it! The trainer gets to feel good about making the dog happy, and life with the dog is improved by the process because effective communication has happened. It’s a win all the way around.

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