But how do you begin to teach a dog to complete a ‘dance’ routine, or to unload a washing machine for his disabled owner.
How are dogs taught to ‘act’ in films, play dead, hide in tiny spaces, or place objects into containers.
In many cases, the answer is by ‘shaping’. Dog training with shaping can be a lot of fun!
What is shaping?
Shaping is a fascinating process by which we can create complex behaviors from simple ones, and new behaviors from old.
We start by picking a basic behavior that we know the dog is capable of.
Initially we reward the dog multiple times for displaying this simple behavior – this encourages him to repeat it.
We then change the game and withhold the reward, looking instead for variations in the behavior which meet our aims and rewarding these instead.
We continue, by reinforcing the new variation for a while, then withhold the rewards again.
In this way we shape a new behavior by selectively rewarding more tiny variations in the existing behavior in a planned progression towards our goal.
Bit by bit, the behavior offered by the dog becomes more closely approximated to what we want to end up with.
Shaping in action
And do so several times in a row.
The dog begins by offering only small paw lifts to get a reward.
If we stop rewarding, he will probably play around with ideas to try and get those rewards flowing again.
Where are my treats?
The chances are he’ll offer a bigger, higher paw lift to get you treating him once more.
We can then begin to reinforce only those paw lifts that are at least an inch from the ground.
Gradually we move the goalposts, pausing the rewards while the dog figures out what we want next and reinforcing that for a while, then pausing the rewards again.
Bit by bit we increase the height of the paw lift we require before reinforcement takes place.
Criteria for reinforcement
Behaviorists and trainer call this ‘requirement’ – the parameters of the behavior they are looking for – the criteria for reinforcement.
The dog has to do X before we give him Y. And the trainer knows and can describe exactly what X is.
X will obviously change and evolve as we develop our new behaviours
Later, with our paw lifting dog, we can begin to reinforce only paw lifts where the dog straightens his wrist, and much later still paw lifts where the tip of his paw goes above his shoulder.
Gradually, over the space of several sessions, we have shaped a ‘high five’.
But there will have been many tiny changes along the way rather than one big one.
This is one of the crucial elements of shaping. These tiny increments by which we raise the criteria for reinforcement.
A shaping plan
The important thing with shaping, is to have a plan. If you want to train a specific behavior, you really need to define it clearly and plan how you are going to get there.
This means anticipating all the stages you will pass through on the way.
A written plan is ideal, especially for complex tasks, and a written record of each session is essential.
You simply won’t remember what you did last time, especially if you have a few days off training.
The purpose of shaping
Shaping is not only useful for teaching tricks, it is essential for any number of complex skills such as those used by service and military dogs.
It can enable us to resolve training issues have traditionally been considered untreatable, resolving delivery problems in working gun dogs for example.
It can help us teach dogs to relax while being groomed or for medical procedures and is now used with animals of many species, all over the world.
Not only is shaping a valuable tool, it is an entertaining and empowering skill for you and your dog to learn.
Practical aspects of shaping
To shape effectively you will be rewarding tiny changes in behavior. Without an event marker, your dog will struggle to understand which change in behavior is the one you want.
You’ll also need to arm yourself with the right rewards.
Most people use a clicker for shaping, it is probably the most precise event marker available to us.
But in some situations (where you have your hands full for example) you may need to choose a verbal event marker. Such as ‘YES!’
The best reinforcements to choose, are rewards that can be delivered swiftly and that your dog finds most valuable.
The benefits of shaping
Virtually anything that a dog is physically capable of doing, can be taught through shaping.
Shaping encourages dogs to think and use their initiative.
It also encourages teamwork and communication between the two of you. Shaping will develop your dog training skills rapidly and profoundly.
Next time, I’ll show you an easy exercise to get you started with shaping. I think you’ll enjoy it.