Some of my Thoughts on Shaping

Wow! I love that so many have contributed to the discussion on shaping. In total (Swedish and English blog) there are over 50 comments made. This seems to be a topic that needs discussion. I’m going to write some of my own thoughts on the subject, but of course, I don’t have all the answers (no one does). I don’t think that shaping only works for a certain type of dog. Our dogs are all very different, but they are all successfully shaped. Some of them have been easier to train, but that would probably be true regardless of method. I think it’s up to each trainer to decide how they want to train their dog, as long as the method is reward based. I see a lot of great benefits with shaping, compared to luring or targeting, and that’s why I use it a lot.

How ever you choose to train your dog, think twice before making statements like “shaping makes my dog stressed” or “my dog does not like to think for himself”. Of course, dogs are born with different personalities, but we can do a lot to nudge them in the right direction. I will always try to strengthen the weaker sides by building toy drive, socialization, handling etc. In this, I also include shaping how my dog acts in training. I believe that you can get all (with very few exceptions) dogs to be calm and focused in shaping. And that all dogs can learn to love shaping.

It is, of course, a matter of what you feel like spending time doing. Some dog trainers seem to always look for the path of least resistance – if the dog won’t play, they’ll give him treats instead, if the dog won’t retrieve, they won’t use toys, if the dog get’s passive in shaping, they help him out. A trainer like that might feel that she is simplifying things (in contrast to the poor people like me that will “make everything so complicated”), but she will without a doubt get shaped by her dog. That leads to the dog developing his strengths, but he’ll never get a chance to work on his weaker sides. When people ask me where I get the patience to do shaping, I quietly feel that it would require a lot more patience on my part if I had to help my dogs through all their life. Shaping might require some patience for a short period of time when you’re just starting out, but you will gain that time many times in the future. A dog that is shaping wise will learn advanced things so much faster than the dog that always needs guidance.

Champions in any field make a habit of doing things others find boring or uncomfortable

The biggest problem in the Swedish comments, were how people desribed the training. Here is one example: “I’ve heard about dogs shutting down a lot as soon as they are expected to offer behaviors”. The key word being expected. Stop expecting anything from the dog, and you’ll do well. All dogs “offer” behaviors all the time. They stand, sit, lie down, sniff, drink, eat, pee, scratch, turn their heads, walk, yawn, prick their ears, wag their tails… If one of these behaviors start producing a reward that the dog really wants, that behavior will increase in frequency. Voila! – The dog is offering behaviors.

Stop your efforts to influence the dog and start observing to find behaviors to reinforce.

If your dog gets worried while shaping, you shouldn’t be staring at the dog and expect him to offer behaviors. This is a great comment posted in the Swedish blog:

Jessica says:
“I thought that my worried young dog couldn’t be shaped. She never offered behaviors and she would get more and more anxious and finally go lie down somewhere. Not good. But then I tried to click for all movements, as long as she did something. And all of a sudden, she got it. You can really see how proud she gets and how her self confidence is growing. “Look at me! Isn’t this worth a click!”

If you have a dog that gets worried by shaping, try this tonight: Get a bowl of really tasty treats ready. Lock the other dogs away (if you have more than one). Turn on the tv and watch something that is interesting enough for you to have patience, but not so interesting that you forget all about the dog. Choose if you’d like to use a clicker or not (depending on your dog’s previous experiences with the clicker). Watch TV. Reward all movements from the dog by (clicking and) throwing a treat to the dog. Do reward ALL movements to begin with. If your dog starts repeting only one behavior, you can choose to not reward that any more, but wait for something else. It’s a good idea to make sure that the dog has to move to get the treat (if your dog lies down, throw the treat so that he has to get up to get it). If your dog goes to sleep – let him. He will eventually get thirsty, need to pee or get up just to change position. If you don’t get a lot of behaviors tonight, you can put the bowl of treats in the fridge and try again tomorrow.

There is no simple answer to this. But I am convinced that there are a lot of dogs that could enjoy shaping if they only got the chance. There’s so much to write on this subject and I’ll have to come back to it. Especially if you keep discussing it in the commend field!

  • reply Sarah ,

    I’m glad you mentioned using caution before using phrases like “my dog is stressed by shaping” or “my dog shuts down when I am trying to shape.” Yes, teaching shaping is tough in the beginning, especially when teaching a dog that has been trained other ways most of her life. But once you get over that hill–which you will only get over by NOT giving in and taking a shortcut–you will find that your dog is brilliant and I have never met a dog that didn’t like shaping at that point. If you give in and “help” the dog, the dog is shaping you, not the other way around. Also, remember that a healthy dose of frustration is a critical part of the learning process. Frustration and stress are not the same! Excellent topic, Fanny.

    • reply Sabina ,

      Thank you for a wonderful advice! I’ve tried clickertraining on and off since I took my puppy home just before christmas and have had problems with getting him to offer different behaviours. I’m definitely going to try this today. I have one question though, should I repeat this for a couple of days?

      • reply Crystal ,

        I try very hard to FS everything with my youngest dog. He has be FS since he was mere weeks old. I did it mostly as a challenge for ME. So I could learn to be patient, improve my timing etc. But I see not only I have benefited…this dog can grasp new tasks ridiculously fast compared to my other dogs. Hes very engaged and happy.

        • reply Jaana ,

          It was this post that encouraged me to take the step and start FS my young female dachshund. I got her at 6 months an she is now 11 months and taught by luring only so I prepared myself to be frustrated. Boy, was I in for a surprise! She was throwing behaviours at me in no time and with just a couple of minutes figured out I wanted her to put her nose in the box.

          I have free shaped 5 of my dogs and this far have had most trouble with the ones that had no experience with FS from young age so figured this was to be blamed. In the light of my new experience I would say that every dog can be free shaped but there are some that are just naturals at it and others that don´t do quite as well. But I believe both benefit from it. I still think luring has its place though.

          • reply Louise ,

            Thank you so much, Fanny. Tonight has been the restart of our new shaping future! I don’t know why, but it is so simple yet I didn’t do it before. The simple instruction to click and reward every single new movement. I have a dog that I said was prone to freezing when I attempted to shape him. I thought it must be my failing as a trainer. And in a way it was. But now we have a had a happy and joyous 1.5 minute of clicks through some tasty sausage and cheese and the boy is happy and animated. He was not stressed and we went at his pace. Thanks! Louise and Grey

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