Offering is when the dog comes up with options rather than you directing the dog what to do. I use this method for training most things because when the dog comes up with ideas, the dog is more aware of what she’s doing. When a dog follows a treat or a prompt, they are not as focused on the behavior you’re creating, but rather they’re focused on the treat or your gestures. It is helpful to have the dog actively playing a role because then it’s not all up to you, the dog is a participant and, as he learns a behavior, the dog is responsible for his part of the work.
If your dog is demonstrating any concern, the last thing you want to do is try to lure or pressure them into/onto something. We want your dog to trust you and gain confidence. Pressuring your dog to do something can be damaging to your relationship. Instead, be patient and get your dog interested in trying stuff to win the treat from you.
You and your dog will need to practice learning this way. It is a skill in and of itself. It’s such a useful skill, that, I find, once a dog knows how to offer behavior (also called shaping or operant conditioning), it gets easier and easier to teach your dog tricks. It’s almost like your dog gets easier to train with every trick. Once you’re fluent in this skill, you’ll teach your dog something new in unbelievably short amounts of time.
So, please get some experience with this learning/teaching style. Some things to remember when shaping:
- It’s a set up. You want the dog to figuratively “walk right into it”. So, if you’re trying to train to interact with a box, you’ll get the dog ready for training (grab your treats, alert your dog that the game is on), and then set the box down in the middle of the room. Since the box is novel, you’re guaranteed some interaction as soon as the box hits the floor.
- Be ready the second the dog jumps in. If you are still messing around with your treat pouch or whatever, dogs often offer behavior as soon as they enter the area (or the item is set down). If you miss that chance because you were looking at, say, your treat bag, your dog will leave the novel item and come look at you and your treat pouch and the training will stall out.
- Avoid stalling out. If a dog gets stuck in a sit or a down (obviously, when training something other than sit/down), develop a soft dialogue to communicate, “That’s not it…try something else.” The other thing you can do is take a step to your left or right (most green dogs will get up and follow).
- You don’t want too much time to go by without the dog succeeding. Shaping can be VERY frustrating and you want to make things easier or break off the training.
- Some thinking (on the dog’s part) is beneficial stress. Too much thinking is usually not productive. Find that point where the dog is making an effort, but stay away from a demotivating level of concentration.
- Don’t talk too much. Depending on the dog, talking can encourage, but, at the wrong time, can totally distract the dog from the task. For the most part, try to be quiet except for when the dog is getting close to the right answer or has earned a click/mark. It’s like that game “hot/cold” we played as kids. Make it so that when the dog is correct, you come alive, and when the dog is getting “cold/colder”, you are neutral.
- CONNECTION, connection, connection. If you don’t have “engagement” and your dog isn’t with you, forget about the task at hand and prioritize building up that connection.
- Keep it short!! I bet everything I own that your training sessions last too long. Especially when dogs are new to this, you should keep it like 2 minutes long (2 minutes flies by, by the way). It’s better to train for a couple minutes, break it off (either with a toy/play reward and enjoying the play for a time or take a break where you dismiss the dog for a couple minutes), and then start back up for another 2 minutes, for 3 reps a session. If you have more than one dog, you can alternate, giving the dogs a break while the other is working. You’ll make more progress in little bite-sized chunks and the dog will have a better attitude.
- Leftovers in your pocket and a dog that needs to be taken by the collar away from the task is ideal. You want your dog straining to get back to work.
- “Relief” is a reward in and of itself. If your dog is concentrating hard, ending the task is a reward.
- You will want to keep going because it’s rewarding to you to see the dog improving. You will be able to extend the session and keep advancing the behavior you’re training. Beware, though, it starts to get sloppy and the dog starts to think too hard. And, in my experience, a dog thinking too hard is not a good thing (for you or the dog).
- Don’t be greedy (see above).
- Slice the behavior down finer if the dog isn’t successful (for example, a glance to start rather than actually touching a paw to a prop).
- Incrementally make it harder when the dog is ready. Don’t stay at a super easy level (like a glance) once the dog clearly knows that the prop is “hot” (that you want the dog to do something with the prop).
- Consider placement of reward. Can you reward the dog somewhere that will set the dog up for the next attempt? For example, if you are training to hop onto a board, reward the dog away instead of on the board.
- Don’t be so focused on your goals that you neglect to realize the dog has come up with a better way/idea/trick. Be flexible. That said, stop and consider deviations from your plan. You do have to be consistent or the dog will get confused, stressed, and nobody will be happy.
- Enjoy your dog’s creativity. Laugh! Have fun with this! The coolest thing about this style of training is it brings out the dog’s personality.