« Back

Shaping your Dog’s behaviour with simple training techniques

19/12/2018 - News & Tips

Modern dog training techniques are very much science based. And as with all things scientific, there are lots to technical terms to learn. When you come to classes with Delders Dogs you’ll probably hear all sorts of unfamiliar words like “conditioning”, “shaping” or “reinforcing”. In this blog we’re looking at a simple dog training technique known as shaping.

What does shaping mean?

Shaping is a really gentle way of training a dog to do something complicated that doesn’t happen naturally in doggy behaviour.

The full term is “shaping by successive approximations” which is a bit of a mouthful. In simple terms it means breaking down a behaviour into tiny steps and reinforcing the dog at each stage until you’ve achieve the full behaviour.

  • So for a retrieve, the dog will be asked to
  • Sit beside the owner while an object is thrown
  • When given the cue, go find the object
  • Pick it up
  • Hold it
  • Return to the owner still carrying the object
  • Place the object into the owner’s hand
  • Return to the sit position

That’s 7 consecutive actions.

Shaping from the dog’s perspective

A dog only understands a few words of human language. So if you were to explain the retrieve instructions to him in words all he would hear is babble. There is an exercise, that is often used to teach new dog trainers how a dog learns through shaping. It also makes a good party game.
Take a group of trainers. Words are banned. You can only use applause or clapping – which is the human equivalent of using a click or a marker word with a dog.

Send one person out of the room. Everybody else must agree on a task they want the subject to do. For example, go to the table opposite the door and pick up a pencil.

Bring the subject back in. They must then move around the room and try to work out what their task is. When they head in the right direction they are applauded. If they get it wrong there’s silence.

So if the subject comes in the door and turns left – that’s wrong. No response from the trainer(s). If they go forwards towards the table there’s applause. Naturally they’ll stop and digest what they’ve just learned. They’ll also feel pretty good about themselves – applause or rewards never
fail to boost the confidence. (When you are training a dog you’ll need to repeat this step until you are sure the behaviour has been learned.)

The next stage is to take the subject back to the starting point and allow them to start again. Of course, they’ll go straight to the place they were applauded. This time though, you want them to go a bit further so don’t applaud when they reach the original spot. When there’s no response the subject will have a think and then try a new behaviour. If they continue towards the table there’s more applause. If they go the wrong way – silence. That will spur them on to keep trying different things until they do get a reward.

I could keep writing but I think you get the gist of what’s happening. Without using words, hand signals or physical force the subject’s behaviour is being shaped towards doing the task required. Because they are working it out for themselves, they learn faster and remember better.

When to use shaping in dog training

I use shaping in almost all of my dog training classes and it definitely underpins problem solving in dogs with challenging behaviour.

Loose lead walking is a prime example of shaping in puppy training classes. Puppies explore an area with their owners attached to their leads. Puppy is rewarded every time the lead goes slack whilst walking. (No rewards for sniff-stops!). Gradually, the behaviour is shaped so that the reward only comes when the dog is walking to heel and focusing on the owner.

For complicated sequences of behaviour – like the retrieve. It’s easier to train the last behaviour first. So we’d start by teaching the dog to hold an object and give it back to its owner. Once that has been mastered we add in the pick-up and retrieve, then the hunting, then the sitting and waiting.

Other behaviours are best taught from the beginning. Settling is a good example of this.

Settling is an important puppy life skill both in the home and out and about. For my own dogs I have a portable settle mat so that I can take it to the cafe and be confident they’ll lie down while I enjoy my lunch. I shaped them to using the mats by first rewarding one paw on the mat, then two paws, four paws, sitting on the mat and finally lying on the mat.

A simple shaping exercise to try at home

This is one of the most basic shaping exercises. In this video I’m teaching Chester to touch my hand with his nose.

Once the nose boop has been mastered, I’ll use it as a tool in our other training. It’s great for recalls. I just gradually extend the distance between Chester and my hand.

Shaping vs Luring

Shaping allows me to transfer the value into a command. Luring or bribing means i will always have to rely on showing the dog the reward before they are willing to do it. @17 seconds you will see me try and get Chester back into position for the camera. I use the hand with food it in without thinking, and Chester doesn’t follow? As soon as i show him an open palm, he follows it straight away, That is because he has never got any food if he tried to get it out of my hand, but only gets some food when he nose touches the open palm. This is transferring value! The value of the food is now in him performing the hand touch.

Timing is everything

The principles behind shaping are simple. The trick is in knowing how to break down a behaviour into small increments and then being skilful with the timing of rewards and reinforcement. You do also need to be patient but rest assured that once a behaviour has been learned through shaping, it is rarely forgotten.

I always recommend having some help when you are shaping behaviour. The reward MUST come at exactly the right time. If you are training your dog to settle, it’s no rewarding the dog after he’s stepped on the mat and wandered off. In his mind, he’s being rewarded for wandering off.

Getting that timing right is crucial and until you gain experience, it really does help to have someone on hand to help hone your skills.

Help with shaping behaviour

If you want to understand shaping better and find out how it can help you and your dog, why not make an appointment for a FREE 20 minute discovery session with Adam Delderfield?

A discovery session is a 20 minute phone call with qualified dog trainer Adam Delderfield. You can learn more about shaping and other force free dog training techniques. Adam will also help you to discover possible solutions to your dog training dilemmas.

Contact Adam today to arrange a dog training discovery session

Related dog training articles

Puppy socialisation

Dog training services in Milton Keynes



Club Orange
Check out our VIP area for you and your dog.
Take a look