When you were a kid did you ever play the hotter/colder game? You would hide something and your friend would wander around while you said “hotter” to mean that they were getting closer to the hidden object and “colder” to mean that they were moving away from your goal. After boiling it down to its basics, training with shaping is like playing the hotter colder game with your dog. Let me explain…
What is Shaping?
Shaping is my favorite way to teach my dogs new behaviors. Basically, it involves waiting for the dog to guess the behavior that you want. If it is something simple like sit, then you will teach it by waiting for the dog to sit then using your marker and rewarding. After a few times, your dog will start to sit in anticipation of the reward. Each time a dog is taught a new behavior using shaping, the process will become easier for him. He will start to guess what you might want and offer behaviors. It encourages the dog to think. Because he has to be an active participant (by taking a guess and trying something) your dog will retain the information better then if you simply lead him to the solution by luring.
9 Steps to Train Your Dog Using Shaping
- Only shape one behavior at a time.
- Finish each training session on a high note. Depending on the complexity of the behavior, it could take anywhere from one session to a few months for your dog to be proficient.
- Decide exactly what you want the finished behavior to look like.
- Wait until your dog takes the first tiny step towards the finished behavior. This might be something as simple as looking or stepping in the right direction. It has got to be simple enough that the dog will happen to do the correct thing with no guidance from you. Be patient!
- Immediately mark (read more about marker and clicker training here) and reward.
- When you reward, give the reward in the direction of the finished behavior. For example, if you are using shaping to teach your dog to jump over a jump in Agility, then put the treat between the dog and the jump. Make a big deal about it! If this is your first time shaping your dog, he will probably be a bit confused about what he did to deserve such a great reaction. However, he will be motivated to figure it out, perform the behavior again, and keep the rewards coming!
- Go back to step 4. Use the same basic criteria as before. It shouldn’t take as long this time but once again be patient. Mark and reward like you did in step 5 and 6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 several times until your dog is performing the behavior consistently.
- Now it is time to up the criteria. This time wait until your dog is a little closer to the finished behavior. If it is taking your dog too long and he is getting frustrated, consider moving your criteria back. You are probably trying to move too fast.
- Keep incrementally increasing your criteria until your dog is performing the finished behavior.
What Can You Train With Shaping?
The short answer is that shaping can be used to train anything that can be trained with other methods. I have trained Flynn to heel, sit, down, take-a-bow, come, stay, and more with shaping. The long answer is anything if you have the time and patience to use it.
Shaping Compared to Luring
Most positive based trainers use either shaping, luring, or a combination of both for most of their training. I might write a whole post about luring in the future but basically, you teach your dog to follow food which you hold in your hand then you simply lead the dog to the correct behavior. For example, if you want to lure a dog into a sit, then you just bring the treat over the dog’s head. As his head goes up, his butt naturally goes down. Once his butt hits the floor, you mark and give your dog a treat.
Luring often works faster initially when compared to shaping but the dog retains the information much better with shaping. I am constantly shocked by the improvement that Flynn makes between training sessions. Instead of just mindlessly following a treat, he has to think about what he needs to do then try something, anything, until he stumbles upon the right answer. When he gets it right, his face lights up and he is excited to do it again.
Should You Use Shaping Every Time You Train Your Dog?
Personally, I use shaping for pretty much everything but I think that luring is often a more practical method to teach behaviors that your dog is unlikely to take steps towards spontaneously on his own and he is getting frustrated. The last thing that you want to do is make training unpleasant for your dog. Training should be your dog’s favorite time of the day.
However, I believe that shaping is the best way to train your dog complex behaviors. When my dog heals, I want him to fully understand what he should be doing so that he will be less likely to make a mistake in the show ring. Because shaping requires him to think through his behavior more complexly, he is more likely to understand exactly what he is doing.