November 2012

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!).

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.

Teaching in Ohio

I’m on my way back from almost two weeks in the U.S. The main purpose of my trip was to teach at PosiDog in Columbus, Ohio, but I also had time to see family in both Washington D.C and in North Carolina. I’ve also enjoyed the sun and mild weather, as Sweden in November is usually dark, cold and wet.

Teaching in Ohio was a lot of fun. We worked on obedience for five days and it was great to have so much time to make sure that everybody was making progress and had a plan of action before I left. Most of the teams that worked in the seminar have signed up for working spots in our new online Foundation Class starting later this week. I really look forward to that. Online teaching is really perfect for students living far away, especially when it can be combined with some real life coaching once in a while.

One subject that we talked about a lot was shaping. I love shaping and use it to teach the vast majority of behaviors that I use for obedience. If shaping feels like a bad idea, it’s usually only because I still haven’t found the right way to shape it yet. I know that many clicker trainers don’t shape a lot of behaviors and that it is sometimes frowned upon and considered too complicated or time consuming. I really don’t think it is and I have a lot of reasons why I like to use shaping. We’ve listed them all in our book “Shaping” that was published in August, but since the book only can be read in Swedish at the moment, I will list some of the reasons why I chose shaping in the blog, so keep your eyes open for that.

I really look forward to seeing my own dogs again. They’ve been in good hands while I’ve been gone, but I think they are a bit bored by now and very ready to work. I am too, even though I just missed a night of sleep going east over the Atlantic.