10. Shaping

Exercise 10.3 - Basic Shaping


Shaping, or as it’s formally known, “shaping by successive approximations,” simply means breaking down a behaviour into tiny increments, and reinforcing the dog at each incremental step until you’ve achieved the full behaviour.


The shaping process works because behaviour is variable.


In any series of repetitions of a given behaviour, your dog will give you variations in the manner that the behaviour is performed – faster/slower, bigger/smaller, higher/lower, harder/softer, etc. If you wanted to shape your dog for a perfect obedience competition sit – straight, fast, and in proper heel position — you’d break the “Sit” behaviour into those three components and work on them one at a time, capitalising on the variability of your dog’s behaviour for each one.


Perhaps you choose to start with speed. Your dog’s average sit time might be three seconds. Your goal is a one-second sit. In any given number of repetitions of “Sit,” some will be faster than three seconds, some will be slower, and some will be right on the three-second mark.


If you were to be scientific about your shaping program, you’d time the sits with a stopwatch, only click and treat (mark and reward) those that were three seconds or faster, and keep a written journal of your progress.


If you are less rigorous, you’d guesstimate the times and strive to click the faster sits. Over time, your dog’s average elapsed sit speed time would decrease, perhaps to two seconds, as he realised that only faster sits get clicked, and deliberately tried to sit faster to make you click more often.


Now you raise the bar – only sits that are two seconds or faster get clicked. By breaking your goal of fast sits into smaller increments of time, you could gradually shape your dog to do a fast one-second “Sit”.


In Exercise 10.1 we looked at Free Shaping where we shaped without any preconceived notion of what we wanted to help get our dog thinking and to encourage him to experiment and ‘offer’ behaviours.  In Exercise 10.2 we looked at Lure/Prompt shaping where we gave our dog a helping hand by using a lure to help him get the initial idea of what we would like him to do.


This time we look at Basic Shaping where we have a specific goal behaviour in mind and, without any prompting, reinforce small increments that the dog offers to train the complete behaviour.


The behaviour we’re going to train is a “Go To Your Place” exercise using a towel.  Folks enrolled for a group class starting soon will find this super helpful as it’s directly applicable to the class situation where you will have your own home station consisting of a raised bed (your dog’s home ‘place’ during the class), a chair (to put your things on – not for sitting on unless that’s part of the exercise!) and some training props like a platform / cone etc.  If you’ve trained this exercise at home then bring the same towel with you and place it on top of the bed.


Incidentally, it’s also a really great idea to have a small towel like this to take with you when you go to busy or distracting places to help your dog feel secure in the knowledge that his job is to stay on the towel.  Cafés are an example where you just want your dog to lay quietly near your feet and I have seen folks do this at agility shows which can be very challenging places with lots of activity and dogs running and playing with toys everywhere which can easily over arouse a young dog.  Maybe you want to go fishing with your dog – having him trained to stay on his towel ‘place’ is a great way to help him understand what’s expected of him. 


Basic Shaping


Shaping is a bit of a Zen exercise - it takes patience and close observation.  It employs a concept that trainers call splitting behaviour rather than lumping.  Lumping means to reinforce large chunks of behaviour – capturing a sit, for example.  In contrast, splitting means to look for the tiniest piece of movement, click and reinforce that, and progressively build toward the final behaviour. Splitting is the essence of shaping.


To shape a “Go to Your Place” behaviour, set out your towel to designate the “Place.” You can actually do this without a physical object to mark the place, but it’s easier for canines and humans to succeed with a visual marker – and then you can generalise the behaviour easily by moving the marker (towel) to another spot.


Now stand back several feet from the towel and watch your dog very closely. You’re going to click and treat the tiniest motion toward “Place” – one step, a turn of the head, a flick of the ear, it doesn’t even have to be directly toward the spot -  “in the general direction” will do.


If you’ve already reinforced your dog consistently for offered behaviours in the previous exercises he’ll probably catch on very quickly.  As he starts repeatedly making deliberate movements toward the towel to get clicked, you’ll hold out slightly longer to build more behaviour. Just slightly though! You want him to get a tiny bit frustrated and try harder (harder = bigger behaviour), but if you hold out too long he may give up and stop offering behaviour altogether which we definitely don’t want.


As he gets closer to the towel you can move forward with him in order to keep delivering treats – but not ahead of him – that would be luring or prompting!


When he’s reached the towel, reset position.  Move yourself and your dog several feet back and start again. The goal is to shape him to go to the towel, not just to be on the towel. When he offers to go to the towel easily, start shaping him to lie down on it.


The value of this exercise is to be able to park your dog there for a while.  


When he’s consistently offering to go lie down on his towel, you can add the verbal “Go to Your Place!” cue (or whatever word(s) you’d like to use).


If your dog doesn’t offer behaviours easily, it may take longer to shape the Place behaviour.  Just be patient, and remember to split – look for the tiniest of movement to reinforce. If he wants only to gaze adoringly into your eyes, look at the towel instead of him. If he just lies down at your feet for a snooze, invite him back to his feet, reposition him, and look for movement to reinforce as he repositions. The more you can find to reinforce, the less likely he is to lie down for another nap.

You can do each shaping session for as long or as short as you like. Assuming your dog is happy to play the game, you can keep on playing!  As with all training, try to end the session while your dog is still enthusiastic and successful and you are both having fun together.


It’s difficult for me to show the early stages of building this behaviour incrementally as all my dogs when offered a towel or mat will instantly go and lie on it!  The video therefore is more a demo of a practice session and the final goal behaviour.


Once you feel you’ve nailed this at home in several locations, take the towel out and about and generalise the same behaviour in some outdoor places – and don’t forget to bring it with you when you come to class!