I don’t know about you, but October seemed to just fly by! Let’s hop into this month’s training challenge, which is the next installment in the “ways to teach behavior” series!
As a reminder, in September we talked about how to teach your pet something new through capturing. Capturing is waiting for your pet to do the desired action naturally and then rewarding them for doing so.
Last month, in October, we talked about how to teach your pet something new through luring, which is utilizing a piece of food or a toy in your hand to guide your pet through the motions.
And that means, this month, we challenge you to teach your pet something new through shaping!
Like with the last two months, I am going to use the behavior of “go to spot” or “go to bed” for demonstration, but there will be a list of additional tricks you can teach your pet through shaping at the end!
And of course, let’s talk about what shaping is first!
When we are talking about shaping, we are talking about a way to teach a new behavior by reinforcing gradual or successive approximations toward the end goal. The idea is kind of like playing “hotter – colder” where you lead someone around in space by saying things like “warm, warmer, hot, hotter…” as they get closer to a spot, or “colder, ice cold…” as they get further.
It is very common to hear the term “splitting” come up when we talk about shaping. So let’s also define that as well. When we talk about splitting, we are talking about how we are going to be breaking down the steps for our goal behavior to find those gradual or successive approximations.
If you ever had to do the exercise where you wrote instructions for an alien from outer space to make a PB&J, it’s kinda like that!
Teaching something through shaping can look something like this…
And don’t worry! We are going to break all this down even more in just a bit.
But first, let’s talk about why we may or may not choose to shape a behavior.
There are a lot of reasons we might suggest taking a shaping approach to teaching a new behavior.
- When you start from that very first approximation and work your way up, you always have a foundation to return to. If I have 10 steps that I can use to teach my dog to do something, I have 10 ways to help my dog remember the thing we were working on!
- When done well, it reduces frustration for both the teacher and the learner by increasing the rate that the pet “wins” or “gets it right”. You can get many repetitions really quickly, and hey, who doesn’t like to “win”!?
- It really builds communication between you and your pet. It’s a conversation as you’re teaching.
- You can teach some incredible things that would never be possible with capturing and luring.
- You are always starting from a place of success and focusing on what you do want rather than what you don’t!
All that sounds great! Why might you not choose to shape?
- It does require some foundational skills, and you may need to work on those first. The teacher needs to have clear communication through their mechanics, keen observation skills, and clear consistent timing to help the learner figure things out.
- While you’re gaining those skills, might you get a little frustrated, and so might your learner, and nobody enjoys frustration.
- It takes planning. Before you go to teach your pet something new, you need to consider what the steps of your plan might look like.
Now, to be fair, those are all true of any time we are teaching a new behavior, and none of that is to scare you away! Shaping can be incredibly fun once you and your pet get the rhythm down!
All right, now that that is out of the way, let’s take a look at how you might prepare to shape your pet going to spot or bed.
Determining your plan
First, clearly define your goal. It could be something like, I want my pet to place all 4 feet on the blue towel.
Once you have that, I find it easiest to work backward.
So, then ask yourself, in order for my pet to place all 4 feet on the blue towel, what does my pet need to do?
In order for my pet to lie down on the towel, they need to put 3 feet on the towel.
In order for my pet to put 3 feet on the towel, they need to put 2 feet on the towel.
In order for my pet to put 2 feet on the towel, they need to put 1 foot on the towel.
In order for my pet to put 1 foot on the towel, they need to move toward the towel.
In order for my pet to move toward the towel, they need to orient toward the towel.
In order for my pet to orient toward the towel, they need to look at the towel.
If we were to then reverse the order it might look like this:
Step 1: Look at the towel
Step 2: Orient toward the towel
Step 3: Move toward the towel
Step 4: Put 1 foot on the towel
Step 5: Put 2 feet on the towel
Step 6: Put 3 feet on the towel
Step 7: Put 4 feet on the towel
Now, keep in mind, your pet might offer something that is not on your list, and that’s okay, they aren’t robots! Anything that is “hotter” toward your goal gets marked and treated! See the example below! 😀
Sweet! We’ve got the plan. What next?
Get ready for your session! Grab your treats, and your clicker or marker, your towel, and call your dog over!
Put the spot or bed down, and be ready! Most dogs will immediately look at the thing, and that’s your chance to get that first approximation and get the ball rolling!
As soon as you see anything that is “hotter” toward your goal, mark and then delivery a treat to your pet. Even if it wasn’t something you expected, like Griffey touching the basket with his nose, and raising his paw up to the rim of the basket. You can see me working through the process with Griffey here:
Now, I couldn’t come up with anything “new” for Griffey to practice with. We’ve done this a lot. Like a lot, a lot, so there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
Griffey is a champion of this behavior. We’ve practiced it with a ton of things, in a ton of locations, and it has paid VERY well for him in the past. Don’t expect your pet to “get it” within a minute unless they are also super well-practiced!
If you and your pet are new to shaping, keep it short, keep it sweet, and keep your rate of reinforcement high!
And as always, some tips to help your training
- Minimize distractions. Shaping can really work that noggin, so try to practice in low-distraction environments.
- You want to mark and treat for movement, not for stillness. If your pet stands there staring at you to do something, then toss a treat, and the second they are done, start marking and treating them for movement. Their eyes move? Mark and treat. Their weight shifts? Mark and treat. They turn around? Mark and treat. Some pets, especially those new to shaping need to be taught that trying things is what pays, not waiting for us to lead the way.
- Be prepared before you engage with your pet. It can be really frustrating for our pet to be waiting for us to be ready, so be prepared before you get your pet out of their comfy spot. Plus, you don’t want to miss the opportunity to mark and treat!
- You may need to split more finely than I did above, and that’s okay! The more steps you fall back on, the better!
- Where and how you deliver the treat will make a difference. If you get stuck, ask yourself, can I deliver my treat in a way that will make the next approximation more likely?
Additional tricks or skills to teach through shaping:
- Decide what you’re going to teach your pet through shaping! There are so many options beyond what we listed here, and Kikopup has fantastic tutorials for so many things!
- Start teaching the thing! Remember, if both you and your pet are new to shaping, it won’t look exactly like what you see in the videos, and that’s okay! It’s a learning journey for you both!
- Let us know on Facebook or Instagram what you’re working on! We’d love to see your progress!