Helpful rather than helpless. But, rather than wax poetic, let’s make sure you understand what shaping is because it’s important to the type of training we use at In Joy.

Shaping (also known as operant conditioning) is a method of teaching a trick by rewarding some semblance of the behavior to start, and progressively working our way up to the finished/complete trick by reinforcing incremental steps along the way. Unlike traditional methods where we push, prompt, lure, coerce, etc to get a dog to do a trick, shaping lets the dog try things to see what works. They know when they are close because the mark/click tells them what we’re after. It’s like that game hotter/colder we played as kids. Each step in the right direction is marked (with a click from a clicker or a specific word (like hotter)) and the dog gets a prize (food/toy) for each correct step.

Let me give you a dog training example. Say you want a giant dog to go through a tunnel. You can bring the dog to the opening of a tunnel and try to throw a treat through it. You could have someone hold the dog on one side, go to the other side and try to call the dog through, or you could try other less desirable ways to “get the dog” through the tunnel. OR, you could set the dog up and let the dog try things. A good set up with a progression of “easy enough” goals is ideal.

The dog is “set up” and so starts trying things. At 1st, when you try something, usually you are a little tentative…as if asking, “Is this what you want?” Let’s put you in as the learner. Imagine how you would feel when you stumble upon the answer (because you were set up) and did just the tiniest piece of the goal (like merely glanced in the correct direction) and won $5. In short time, you’d be pretty into it, right? Maybe even offering more, as if to say, “I can do more than just look that direction…see” and expecting more cool prizes. That would shift our criteria to our next click point to wait for something more. Perhaps that would be clicking when you start to walk towards the tunnel. And we build from there in however many little steps (or slices) needed to confidently reach our end goal.

If you decided after 1 glance to go diving through a tunnel, well, wonderful, big reward and we’ll raise your criteria after you can do it again (because it could have been a fluke). If, however, you’re still wary and asking, “Is this it?”…even if you already dove through the tunnel, we are going to keep rewarding those tiny steps towards the tunnel until you are doing that predictably and confidently. I want you to say, “I got this!” with a smile before asking for more.

Now, contrast that with making the answer/click too hard to get. Say you had to guess to do it while keeping your hand on your head, otherwise no click/prize. You aren’t given a single good clue. If everything you try isn’t good enough, you’re going to stop trying and/ get frustrated. If it is too much of a stretch from anything that would occur to you to try, we are “lumping” and asking for too much at once. That’s true even if it’s not that hard of a thing to physically do.

Slicing the behavior down into little pieces is a component of shaping. Instead of starting with a tunnel, we could use something narrower (and thus easier) for your dog to go through…like a PVC hoop or maybe a shallow box with the flaps removed. You could make it easier by using something taller than your dog, so your dog doesn’t need to duck to walk through. You could develop the concept of going through things like this, and slowly make a piece of it harder, like using something lower to let your dog learn to duck. Then longer, to teach your dog to duck for more steps. Or longer first with something taller, then add the ducking back in for a later stage instead of lumping those 2 elements together.

If your dog might have otherwise been afraid of the tunnel, this approach preserves your dog’s trust in you… and the world, and your dog might even start to look forward to unusual/new things, too! Along the way, you get to share an enriching activity, work out communicating with one another, and develop a very useful tool for teaching your dog. Confidence, fun, and figuring out the puzzle is our true goal. The dog might not end up going through the tunnel until many training sessions later. But that’s OK, because the tunnel isn’t really the goal. Your dog doesn’t HAVE TO ever go through a tunnel. It’s just something fun we wanted to play around with.  

Why go through the bother when we could otherwise just “get” our dogs to do something? Our dogs have very little choice in life. They walk when we say it’s time, they go where we take them, and they are asked to comply with things like laying down, waiting for us, etc. Choice is a potent reward (scientifically proven across many species). It also gives dogs control, which has a lot of value and meaning. If you think about a child who has been raised to make decisions rather than forced to “obey” under a set of  “because I said so” rules, it makes a lot of sense. The child who has been guided in learning knows that his actions have consequences and that he can make decisions and effect different outcomes. This is not only empowering, but tends to encourage a cooperative and thoughtful person. Helpful rather than helpless.

But, for reasons beyond those altruistic ones, when we teach an animal through the process of shaping, we employ the cognitive faculties of our learner. We get more buy in, it’s a co-creative process, the learner can comprehend what she is doing, it’s a clearer way to teach something, and it’s the only way to teach complicated tricks. When we lure (or otherwise “get” a dog to do something), we may show the criteria we want, but the dog doesn’t learn HOW to do it, nor does he learn the process of figuring things out, which is an important skill for any animal. It’s also just a whole lot more fun and creates an optimistic learner who enjoys the training.

Hopefully you’ll be able to focus on steps instead of final outcomes and can explore this rich and functional method with some of our training games! Truth be told, you’ll actually achieve the best outcomes this way, though it may be more of a journey than you initially expected. A journey that I wouldn’t give up for the world!