What is shaping?
Anytime we delve into the science of training and behavior we bump into some pretty healthy vocabulary. According to Wikipedia, shaping is “The differential reinforcement of successive approximations, or more commonly, shaping is a conditioning procedure used primarily in the experimental analysis of behavior.”
Quite a mouthful isn’t it? But if you break it down (which coincidentally is what shaping is all about) shaping can be defined as mincing a behavior down to very small pieces and reinforcing those pieces until we get the full behavior.
How does shaping work?
Shaping works because there are always discernable differences in a behavior. For instance a dog may be bit slower on his down than his sit. Some are quicker than others. Some are more military and proper in their posture. And some are held longer than others. So in order to shape a better down, we can decide to start rewarding only the quicker downs. As the downs get quicker we raise our reward threshold in very small increments until we get to the point where we get the quick down we want. Then, we can start on the posture of the down. We start rewarding the downs with better posture and slowly raise the reward level in very small increments until we reach our military crispness. And finally we work on holding those downs (technically a down stay) a little bit longer each time until we get our ultimate down stay.
Where do problems arise?
Going too fast is one of the biggest problems in training period. In a high percentage of cases when a dog suddenly seems to lose a behavior it’s because we asked for too much too soon. When that happens we need to have the ability to recognize it and back or criteria down to a level that the dog picks up on. Once the dog is back in the game, we can increase our criteria again making sure that we don’t go too fast in raising the criteria.
Frustration can also play a part in shaping, especially when you are first learning it. It takes time to develop the timing and coordination to properly mark the tiny increments we want and reward them. It also takes a practice to develop the eye and creative thinking needed to lead to shaping success. In addition if we go too fast in raising our criteria and our dogs can’t keep up, they can become frustrated and lose interest in the game.
I like to tell people that learning to shape should be considered more a game than training, especially at first. Training trick behaviors like a head bobs or shakes are a great way to build skills for both you and your dog while keeping it on a fun, enjoyable level.
Resources for Shaping Dog Behavior
Here are some excellent articles and videos on shaping that go a little further in depth on structure and technique. Remember that it’s a learning process for both of you, keep it fun and you will both succeed.
If you know of other articles or videos that should be included on this list. Please leave a comment with the link and we will include them here.
Enjoy your dog,