Giving Up Some Control – Shaping Dog Behaviours

In my last post, I pondered the issue of control and raised some, hopefully, thought-provoking questions. I also promised that I would write an article on relinquishing some control to improve your training. It may sound contradictory but often letting go of a little control could be the best thing for your training, and your relationship with your dog.

This article will focus on a training tool called shaping. Shaping is a process that allows your dog to be in control of the training. Your dog offers behaviours, and you reinforce the ones that you like. Try having some food in your hand and standing near your dog. You will find they will run through behaviours like jumping, barking, sitting, laying down, pawing at you, standing on their hind legs etc. By reinforcing certain behaviours they will occur more frequently. Then you can put them on cue. It’s like playing a game with your dog. However, before you start this with your dog, there are just a few things you should know about shaping.

Shaping takes time and you must have patience. You cannot ask your dog to perform the behaviour for you, you must wait for them to work it out on their own. In its most free form, when shaping a behaviour, you would not give your dog a verbal cue or visual lure. Often people want results yesterday when it comes to their dog’s behaviour, and usually shaping does not offer this. This is why you will need patience.

Shaping also requires good timing and knowledge of the steps it will take to achieve a goal behaviour. For example, heeling requires your dog to be walking on your left, directly beside your leg, looking up at you. If you are just starting out with heeling you wouldn’t expect your dog to offer this exact behaviour. You may just start walking up and down your hallway and reinforce your dog for following you. This is where good timing of your reinforcement comes into it. Over time you progressively reinforce closer and closer heeling to your left leg, and eventually only reinforce your dog when they are looking at you. This is called ‘find-the-heel’ game.

While there are some disadvantages to shaping, the many advantages are worth it. Shaping is great for building confidence in a dog that you have just brought home from the shelter. Shaping allows your dog freedom to try behaviours without being preoccupied by punishment. Shaping is wonderful for brain development, your dog will have to think through the behaviours that have worked, and remember the behaviours that have not worked.

Shaping is also the best technique to use when you are unsure as to whether your dog can work through a distraction. You don’t need to give any signal, just wait for your dog to perform, this way you are not asking your dog for anything- they cannot fail, and cannot ignore you. If they offer the behaviour you are looking for then you know you can start to introduce a hand and verbal signal and you know you will be able to work through a certain distraction.

Shaping builds resilience, your dog will have many unsuccessful attempts before they hit the correct behaviour. Through these unsuccessful attempts your dog will learn to tolerate failure and bounce back from it by attempting new behaviours.

You can also use shaping techniques to train other animals. This is how they train dolphins and seals to perform. I once trained a pet piglet using this method. If you are interested in teaching your dog to nose or touch or ‘target’ an object (this is how they often teach dolphins to jump so high), shaping is great for this. I like to use a post-it-note, when my dog touches it with his nose I reinforce him. Once he is touching it consistently I can move the post-it on anything I need him to touch.

As long as your expectations are within limits, your dog will continue to try for you. When you find your dog giving up, you have probably pushed them too far. If you want your dog to keep trying for a behaviour you may need to reinforce them for simply trying, and then move towards your behaviour goal, this is called successive approximation.

The following is an example of a successive approximations for drop (lay down):

Sit- lowering of head while rear is still on ground- progressive further lowering of head towards the ground- movement of paws forward-elbows hitting the ground.

You can see from these behaviours just how many steps there are for your dog to perform a successful ‘drop’. Be clear about the steps, and what you are going to reinforce, and your shaping will be a success.

Letting go of a little control and handing it over to your dog can benefit your training and relationship in so many ways. Shaping is a very effective way of doing this, with the ultimate goal of an obedient dog, without the fight for control.

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