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Veterinarian Technician August 2011 (Vol 32, No 8)

Inside Behavior: Using Shaping to Train Dogs

by David Thatcher, KPA-CTP

    Shaping is the reinforcement of incremental spontaneous movements by a dog. This training method can help trainers obtain more complex behaviors through clicker training by building a behavior step by step.

    To start, describe what the end behavior should look like. Then write down the necessary steps to achieve the behavior. In training sessions, each step is marked (i.e., clicked) on the way to the final behavior. For example, if I want my dog to lie in a baby bed, I would describe the end behavior as follows: my dog will lie down in the bed with his head up or down; his front paws can be on the bed or hang over the edge. The steps for obtaining this behavior are as follows:

    • My dog looks at the bed

    • He takes one step toward the bed

    • He walks toward the bed

    • He stands next to the bed

    • He puts one paw in the bed

    • He puts two paws in the bed

    • He climbs into the bed

    • He sits in the bed

    • He lies in the bed

    My 4-minute video shows how I use shaping to get my cocker spaniel to lie in a baby bed to the cue of “baby boy.” No luring, force, verbal instruction, environmental manipulation, or prompting is necessary. Instead, when shaping a behavior, the trainer (1) waits for the dog to naturally offer each incremental step in the training plan and (2) reinforces each increment.

    A dog’s natural ability must always be considered when developing a training plan. If a dog cannot perform a behavior because of a physical limitation, no training method will change this.

    The steps toward a desired behavior must be broken down into their smallest increments, or the dog’s reinforcement ratea might not be high enough to continue a training session. If the dog is not reinforced appropriately, it might become frustrated and end the training session. The reinforcement rate is different for each dog, but generally, if I am not clicking at least five times per minute during a session, I revisit my training plan to add incremental steps.

    The training plan should be completed before training begins. If the dog moves quickly through the steps but the final steps have not been prepared, the training session will end abruptly, which the dog may interpret as punishment. Remember that the dog chooses what is rewarding as well as what is punishing.

    The timing of clicks is very important. Clicking early or late does not mark the appropriate behavior, likely confusing or frustrating the dog. Proper clicking requires excellent observation by the trainer. Remember that what you click is what you get.

    Just because the training plan includes incremental steps does not mean that the dog cannot offer a behavior that is beyond the next increment. The trainer and dog are not required to rigidly follow the plan. The steps are designed to ensure that the dog does not become frustrated by a difficult task. In addition, a technique called ping-ponging can be useful for reducing a dog’s confusion or frustration during a training session. Ping-ponging involves repeating a previous step or two if the dog shows any sign of confusion or frustration.

    Adding shaping to a trainer’s “toolbox” can build a dog’s and trainer’s confidence and make training more fun. I enjoy shaping new behaviors, and I think you will, too. Shaping can encourage dogs to think and help trainers to be creative in making training plans. Shaping has endless applications for training dogs.

    aReinforcement rate is the number of times an animal is reinforced (rewarded) for completing a desired behavior.  When the reinforcement rate is 10 to 15 clicks/min, an animal will be motivated to continue “playing” the shaping “game.”

    The author’s credentials (KPA-CTP) stand for "Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner."

    NEXT: Tech Tips (August 2011)

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