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Shaping

Shaping, luring, prompting….

Shaping, luring, prompting….

I read and enjoy Patricia B. McConnell’s blog about animal training and what goes on at her farm. This week, the topic of shaping came up for discussion. I have so much to say about this topic that I thought it best to write a blog post instead of a long comment. In this blog post, I’m discussing shaping from a dog trainer perspective, as I don’t train other species much. I realise that this post will discuss a lot of things not at all mentioned in the original post, so it’s not at all a criticism of the blog post, just my thoughts on the practical applications of different modes of instruction in teaching dogs new things.

Definitions are hard! I feel like I don’t even want to get into a lengthy discussion on the correct terminology. Some people will argue that it is only true shaping if you sit on a chair, or always reward away from the direction of the behavior, and if I understand this article by Karen Pryor correctly, it’s not shaping but successive approximation if you make the behavior easier to accomplish when you begin training. If that is the case, I very rarely use shaping. And I don’t think anyone does seriously. So it’s not very interesting to discuss then, is it?

This is a clip (in fast forward to fit on Instagram) from Bud’s first session of weaving. I would definitely call it shaping even though I move, reward in the direction of the behavior and make the behavior easier by using only two poles and opening them up to begin.

First weaving session ever! #ftwbud #bordercollie #forthewinbc #agility #weaving #slalombud

A video posted by Fanny Gott (@fannyftw) on

What do I mean by shaping

What is interesting to discuss is where there actually is a difference in training. I realise now that my definition of shaping is fairly broad, yet I find it more useful for discussion. This is how I would define the training that I use that I sloppily define as as shaping:

  • Reward based – no verbal or physical corrections. (Of course, I can see how you could shape a behavior using negative reinforcement as well, it’s just not what I mean when I say I use shaping).
  • Builds on the dog’s own initiative. The dog is actively offering behavior in order to get the reward. He is not waiting for a command, prompt or lure.
  • Behaviors are split into smaller building blocks to make it easy for the dog

There are a lot of things that could be added to that list, but I find that many of them are in the “often, but not always” category for me. That would for example include the use of a marker signal. I do use a marker signal most of the time – because it helps my timing. But sometimes I can deliver the reward with perfect timing – for example by throwing a treat over the dogs head as he is focused forward, which makes a marker signal unnecessary or even distracting (because the dog might orient towards the sound and look back to me instead of keeping his focus forward).

In that category, I would also place that wrong responses are just ignored and the dog tries again. This is what I most often do, but sometimes I need to call the dog back to me for a new repetition if he makes the wrong choice. Most of the time though, wrong responses are met with no reaction and the dog just tries again. It is not followed by a verbal correction or by the immediate help from a cue, prompt or lure.

Here is an example of a puppy learning to sit up from down in about 3 minutes:

 

What’s the big difference?

The big difference from other methods of training is the emphasis on the dog offering behavior. This is what, in my mind, separates shaping from a method based on luring or prompting. This is what I find makes a huge difference in the way the dog learns and performs. If the dog and trainer team are skilled with the offering of behavior, it doesn’t matter at all if you sometimes use help (lure, prompt, target) to get a behavior started. As soon as the dog gets the idea, he will offer the behavior if you just wait, and there will be no need to gradually fade the help. At least, that is my experience. On the other hand – when dog and trainer are skilled with shaping, there is rarely need to use that kind of help.

Why is it important that the dog offers behavior? To me – it’s about the long term effects and the influence it has on the teamwork with my dogs. If someone handed me a puppy and asked that it would spin clockwise on cue tomorrow, I’d most certainly use a lure to get the behavior. Luring is probably a faster way to teach that kind of moderately-difficult-but-easy-to-lure behavior (if they asked for a sit or down I wouldn’t lure because that just seems like more work) with a dog that has no prior experience with training.

With my own puppies, there are lessons much more important than getting them to spin. My focus is on what makes them great training companions in the future and for the rest of their lives, not what gets me behavior fastest right now. I know that if I teach them to offer behavior, actively work to get rewards and try again if they fail, they will learn behaviors in no time in the future. They will also learn other very important skills, like:

  • I will not ask you to work, you have to engage me to get rewards – leads to a dog that will be focused and driven.
  • There is nothing bad about not getting a reward you were hoping for, just try again and try harder – leads to a dog that doesn’t find it strange to work for longer periods of time without being rewarded, and that doesn’t get frustrated or worried when rewards are not coming.
  • If you want something in life, try to impress me – leads to a dog that will look to work with me in the face of distractions

What do I mean by offering?

A dog trained by me will definitely offer behavior if we’re in a training situation and I don’t say anything to them. Some situations have default behaviors – like coming to heel if I stand or walk straight and competition like. In other situations, they might just offer something we recently trained or something they enjoy a lot. I don’t really expect them to be super creative. I will not just sit and stare at them and hope that they will offer something new out of the blue. Splitting behavior into small pieces and planning my sessions well means that I very quickly will get them on the right track. I will reward very simple behaviors to get the session started (for example just standing in front of me, or looking at an object, or lying down). The dog is not really offering much, I’m capturing a starting point. I will not raise the criteria and expect the dog to do something more until he is repeating the first behavior. Once he is on the right track, I can usually raise criteria quite quickly in small but frequent steps.

A puppy, or dog new to training is never expected to offer anything at all. I capture behaviors – small, small pieces of what I want, until I see the dog repeating them in order to get a reward. Dogs do a lot of things all the time – we just need to be good observers and have good timing. I think that one reason why my dogs rarely show any frustration is that I really don’t expect anything from them. If they need time to think, I’m fine with that. It doesn’t stress me out, so my dogs aren’t stressed about it either.

Offering never stops

I add a cue to behaviors that I shape when the dog repeats the behavior happily and isn’t dependent on my position, reward placement or the environment. I like my dogs to be good at responding to cues, to wait for cues and to differentiate between cues, so I work on it a lot. But I never take away the offered behavior. Any behavior that my dog has learned can easily be offered if I need it. This is for a number of reasons, for example:

  • If I want to work on some technical aspect of the behavior (not related to stimulus control), I want to be able to do it without using the cue. It gives me a better flow, and if there’s something I don’t like about the way my dog performs the behavior at the moment, I don’t have to pair my cue with that behavior until it’s perfect again.
  • If I want to add an element of difficulty, like distance, from movement or duration. My dog might be great at “sit” when he’s in front of me. That does not mean that he will do it on a distance. Taking the cue away and working on offered behavior makes sure that I don’t associate the cue with frustration when I ask for it in a new situation. The dog gets to offer the behavior until it’s fluent in the new situation, and then I add the cue back in as a “green light”.
  • If I want the behavior as a starting point for shaping another behavior. I might for example want my dog to learn to crawl. If I have to ask my dog to lie down to get started, I have a problem. My “down” cue means lie down and don’t move until I release you, so I don’t want to use that when shaping a crawl. An offered down (and no release) is a much better starting point!
  • If I want the behavior as a starting point for a chain or sequence. I like my dogs to “ask to work”, so I like any chain to start with an offered behavior of some sort. It might be that the dog offers heel position for me to start an obedience chain, or maybe that the dog offers a sit in order to get to work on holding a dumbbell. This also makes sure that I know that my dog is motivated and ready to work before I ask something of him.

Conclusion

It is difficult to write about this, because the subject is huge. My point is that I think the big difference is not in what techniques you use to get behavior started (even though it makes a difference if you’re always luring and never capturing), but in how much the dog offers behavior that is not cued or prompted in training.

If you are interested in my way of training, or in improving your shaping skills, I will be at PosiDog in Columbus, Ohio on March 5-6 to teach on the subject of shaping. I will bring my dog Epic with me, and we’ll show you how efficient and fun this type of training can be. I really look forward to it!

Criteria is King

Anytime you train your dog, you set rules that dictate what the dog needs to do to earn a reward – criteria. Without a criterion, you’re just feeding (or playing with) your dog. We’re all aware of this, yet it’s very easy to slip into training where we just reward without thinking about criteria. It seems easy enough in the beginning, when we’re just capturing all behaviors that can lead us towards our goal. We love to reward, and all we need to think about is setting the dog up for success and having good timing.

When the dog is on the right track and repeatedly offers the behavior we’re after, it’s very easy to get stuck on still rewarding all tries. I often get asked about what to do with training problems like the dog moving his feet in positions, chewing on the dumbbell or crooked sits. First thing you need to ask yourself is: Am I rewarding it? It might seem like a stupid question, but my experience is that in most cases, people are rewarding the very behavior they consider problematic. How on earth is the dog supposed to know that we don’t want it?

Of course, one reason why people chose to reward is because they want the dog to get rewarded for working and staying in the game, and they don’t really feel like they know what to do about the issue. In other cases, trainers are just so used to always rewarding that they’re not thinking about the possibility of actually choosing which responses to reinforce. The problem is: You get what you reward. And the longer you reward something you don’t want, the more frustrating it will be to get rid of it. In a perfect world, you set the dog up for success so that you never reward the behaviors you don’t like. In reality, you’ll often reinforce behaviors that are close to what you want, but not perfect, when you begin training. With a lot of behaviors, I don’t find this a problem if you raise criteria and move on quickly.

There are a lot of reasons why trainers get stuck with a behavior they’re not crazy about. There are a lot of ways to tweak and adjust training that will help even if you’re still rewarding all repetitions. But the bottom line is: many trainers need to get more comfortable with setting criteria and withholding reinforcement if the behavior isn’t good enough. In the words of Bob Bailey: If you want more, you have to ask for more. Of course, you can’t ask for everything at once. You need to raise criteria in small steps, but do it often. The longer you stay at one step, the more difficult it will be to get to the next one.

Why am I writing about this? Because I constantly make the mistake, and because I see how quickly I get results when I’m conscious of criteria. I’ll tell you about how I problem solved using stricter criteria in my next blogpost. Please feel free to ask any questions you might have on the subject, and I’ll answer here or in my next blog post.

I also wanted to share these beautiful pictures taken by Thomas yesterday. He’s in the north of Sweden, in the mountains, hunting grouse with old Pax (11 years old!) and Alot (8 months old). They seem to have great weather and some luck with hunting. And Alot is learning a lot about scent, as well as steadiness to birds and retrieving.

Alot on the mountain
Alot retrieving grouse
Epic

Why use Shaping #3 – Mastering no reward events

One of the hardest things to handle for our dogs in competition is the lack of reward. Not getting an anticipated reward can result in frustration, anxiety or reduced motivation. Those are not feelings that we want in training or competition, so it is critical that we teach the dog to master no reward events.

We want the dog’s reaction to no reward to be to focus and try harder, and we don’t want it to be a big deal to the dog. Shaping teaches the dog this from the start. It is normal in shaping for rewards to be withheld, and the dog has to focus and try again in order to get a reward. Good shaping makes intermittent reinforcement and training for competition easy later on!

IMG_0596

Why use Shaping #2 – Division of Responsibility

I want my dogs to actively take responsibility for keeping focus and trying hard when we’re working together. I never want to have to ask them to work, but rather want them asking me for a new task at all times in training or competition. This is, I think, one of the key elements to success in the competition ring. Even energetic dogs that like to work will get lazy and lose focus if we constantly take responsibility for keeping them with us in the ring. Losing the dogs attention when training, or even worse – competing, is very aversive to most trainers and taking responsibility for the dogs focus (for example by asking for it, talking to the dog with a happy voice, moving in a fun way, commanding or threatening the dog) is negatively reinforced since it often works in the short term. Unfortunately, it only makes the problem worse in the long run.

What does this have to do with shaping? Everything! I believe that shaping is the perfect way of teaching the dog a great division of responsibility. I have great rewards, but the dog has to work to earn them. I will not cheerlead the dog to work, nor use the rewards as a lure to get behavior. I am quietly observing the dog and then rewarding good effort. This can be started as soon as I start training my puppy at 8 weeks, and the puppy will learn one of the most important lessons for success in competitions right away. Shaping teaches the dog to be the active part in training, always focused on working to get that great reward – especially when I am just quietly focused (just like in competition!).

Puppy Kat

Why use Shaping #1 – Instant feedback

One of the things I like most about using shaping (learning based on the dogs own initiative and no prompts or lures) to teach new things, is that I get instant feedback on the clarity of my teaching and the value of the rewards I am using. Dog trainers seem to focus way too much on getting the behavior and too little on actually reinforcing behavior. While luring might get you the behavior quickly, it is hard to tell if you’re actually building value for the behavior or for the prompts used. I think that using help often builds much more value for following our hand/the food/the target than for the actual behavior, and it is very hard to know what is what until you try to fade the prompt.

Using shaping gives you instant feedback on the value of your rewards (does the dog want to repeat the behavior that produces the reward). If you find that your dog loses interest in repeating the behavior, you should look at how you are rewarding rather than introducing a help (body language, encouraging chatter, cues, targets, lures etc.). This is harder than it sounds, it seems to be human to focus on prompting behavior rather than reinforcing it, but when you get in the habit of constantly evaluating value you will get addicted to the instant feedback that shaping provides in a much clearer way than luring does.