Shaping behaviors - a powerful dog training concept

Shaping is an incredibly powerful concept that you should add to your positive reinforcement vocabulary. Shaping is the strategy of rewarding certain behaviors to increase the chances that they will happen again. 

You shape behaviors of others countless times throughout the day without even possibly realizing what you are doing. If a friend tells a funny story and you laugh, your friend was rewarded for her efforts and will probably tell you a funny story in the future.

If a friend has been working hard for two weeks to lose weight and you remark how good she looks, she will probably walk with a little spring in her step the next time she is headed to the gym. 

If an animal gets rewarded for a specific behavior, then that behavior will most likely happen more often in the future for a possibility of attaining another reward.

However there is a difference between dogs and people and how they can understand the relationship between a behavior and a reward based on the timing of the two. 

Can you tell the difference between the two previous examples and do you know why the timing of one of the examples would be confusing to a dog? In the first example the behavior (laughing) was rewarded instantly and the person telling the joke knew exactly which behavior caused the desired response.

In the second example the friend’s behavior (exercising) was rewarded after the fact during a conversation. People can make the connection and deduce that the previous behavior (exercising) resulted in a positive remark (you look great!) and will be motivated to exercise again in the future. 

Dogs do not make the connection as easily as people about behaviors that are not rewarded almost immediately. This can impact your daily training as well.

If you ask your dog to “Sit” and then he sits but then lies down and you reward him when he is lying down he will associate the word “Sit” with the behavior that you think of as “Down”. If you want him to understand what “Sit” means, you should mark the correct behavior with a reward marker such as a clicker or the word “Yes!” and then use a reward that your dog likes. 

In other words, timing is important. Using good timing, shaping is a fantastic way of teaching your dog to do specific behaviors that you find useful. You can shape behaviors of any age dog, but I find the following exercise to be especially useful with a hyper-active puppy that doesn’t know a lot of behaviors such as Sit, Down or Stay. You will have more success shaping if you plan ahead and think of behaviors that you are looking for. With a young puppy, you might want to shape Sit, Down, Come, or walking next to you. You can also read this post about shaping the absence of inappropriate behaviors for more examples of shaping.

You can use your puppy’s mealtime as a great opportunity for shaping, or you can use nutritious treats. 

In the following exercise I will show an example of how to shape Come, Sit and/or Down.

Beginning Shaping Exercise

  1. Walk away from your dog
  2. If he follows you, mark the behavior with a succinct “Yes” or ‘Click’ using a clicker and give a reward
  3. If he jumps, ignore that behavior and wait for him to sit and then mark the behavior and reward
  4. Once he starts sitting reliably, wait until he lies down and mark that behavior and reward
  5. If you find that your dog is just doing one behavior and isn’t offering anything new, either walk away from your puppy or take a break and try again later

This is a very simplistic example of watching for behaviors that you want your dog to do and rewarding them. You can work on very complex behaviors using the concept of shaping including teaching retrieve, tricks like take a bow, or behaviors like loose leash walking.

Trainers sometimes make the mistake of focusing on their dog’s bad behaviors and miss all of the good behaviors that they exhibit. The main point that I want you learn from this post is that if you reward behaviors that you like, they will happen again.
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