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Using Object-based Shaping to Teach Your Dog new Behaviors

There are two ways to shape: Object-based Shaping & Free shaping.

The easiest way to learn shaping is to start with Object-based Shaping. Both you and your dog gain experience with the shaping process, your dog learns how to offer behaviors and you learn timing skills, how to maintain a high rate of reinforcement (critical to successful shaping) and improve your observation skills and judgment of what is a clickable behavior. By starting with objects that are not critical to your dog’s future allows you to relax and not worry so much so about making mistakes.

And you will make many mistakes, that’s what learning is about! Your dog will forgive you! You need to forgive yourself! Only then will you improve your shaping skills. The more objects you can shape interaction with, the better you and your dog will be at shaping.

What is Object-based Shaping?
Object: article, item, object in the environment (like a tree or post), person or other animal
Shaping: creating a behavior or changing a behavior in tiny steps or taking micro steps towards a desired behavior (also commonly called successive approximation)

There are 7 Steps in Object-Based Shaping a New Behavior:
1. Object awareness-dog becomes aware that the object is your target of interest
2. Interaction-the dog physically interacts with the object with nose, paw etc to experiment with it
3. Manipulation-the dog manipulates the object using his body. It may be pulling, pushing, jumping over, maintaining a specific position (sit, down etc) on or near the object or a combination of these.
4. Full understanding of the desired behavior with the object-the dog ‘gets’ the desired behavior.
5. Name the behavior-you name the new behavior by giving it a cue
6. Add the 3 D’s (distance, duration, distractions etc)
7. Take the new behavior to a New Location and reshape it from scratch

This same process is used for every new object the dog comes across, especially if your dog is fearful or nervous of it. This gives your dog an understanding of what the object is about and what he is supposed to do with it or interact with it. He also learns that no matter where he is, or what is happening around him, the behavior is always the same. (This is called generalizing a behavior)

Another Human Example:
Many people teach their dog to ‘do’ a behavior with an object but just expect their dog to ‘do’ the behavior without allowing the dog to learn first about the object. That would be the same as asking someone with no previous experience with a computer to “Start using it!”

Before they could do that, they need to work through the process:
a person will look at the computer (1. the dog moves towards it or sniffs it),
she may touch the keyboard to learn what it feels like (2. dog nose touches or paws it), or stands on it and shifts his body around to see that the surface is stable) etc.
Next she needs to learn how to turn it on (3. what behaviors can I do with this object that will get my person to click and treat?)
Then develops proficiency with the computer (4. ability of dog to do the behavior correctly every time)
and names and describes to another person the action that she did (used MSWORD to do word processing) (5. Dog learns the new behavior has a cue).
Family comes home from work and friends come over while she word processes. (6. dog learns to do the behavior even if another dog is barking nearby or a person is trying to pet her.)
Goes to friend’s house and learns from scratch to start up and use their computer to do word processing with MSWord (7. relearn new behavior at new location).

Dogs pass through each of these steps in varying speed, depending mostly on their experience with shaping but also stress/fear may slow some dogs down at some stages.

One Object, Many New Behaviors
Once you have shaped a behavior with an object, and your dog is consistently responding to the cue, you can go back to the beginning and teach a new behavior with the same object. For example: training a heel on the left side of a wheelchair. Then train the dog to walk behind the wheelchair, then beside the wheelchair on the right and in front of the wheelchair through a doorway.

Write a Plan for your Object-based Shaping
Before you start shaping, you need to have a plan of what you think your dog can do to get your desired behavior. It is helpful to write these plans down the first few times you try shaping, as it helps you to conceptualize what you will be clicking. Later on, you can have a plan in your head but the first few times you can actually record what happened against what you planned. This will help you to predict what your dog will do in the future. Every shaping experience adds to what behavior your dog learns he can offer. The first few times, he will likely offer what he knows. Sit, sniff, nose touch, pull, etc. When he learns that a different behavior gets clicked, he’ll start offering those too. Each of those new behaviors can be developed into a new direction to create new behaviors in the future.

Start with stating your final behavioral objective in very specific terms. Then try to figure out what your dog’s starting point should be, then what the half way point is, then quarter way and three quarter way point etc. Break the behavior down into small enough steps that you know your dog will easily succeed.

Remember, the trainer's job is to make our dog’s learning as easy as it can be. If necessary, plan for you to interact with the object at some point of the training In other words, you may need to hold it, point at it, move away from it etc).

How many repetitions you do at each level is up to you. For dogs new to shaping 10-20X is fine, for more experienced dogs, less repetitions works too so the dog doesn’t get stuck at any level of the training and think that this is the final behavior you want.

Here’s an example:
Objective: Dog stands while pushing a ball 10 feet with his nose(could be with one push or with multiple pushes). Use a ball that is too large to fit in his mouth and difficult for him to pick up.

Shaping Plan
1. Bring ball out from behind back-dog looks at or sniffs it
2. Hold ball in hand, dog places nose firmly on ball.
3. Dog in a down, place ball between front legs while still holding it. Dog does firm nose touch.
4. Dog in a down, ball placed between front legs. Pushes ball one inch.
5. Dog in a down, ball placed between front legs. Pushes ball 12 inches.
6. Dog in a down, ball placed between front legs. Pushes nose under ball and pushes it 3 feet or more.
7. Dog in a sit, ball placed in front of dog. Dog pushes ball 12 inches.
8. Dog in a sit, ball placed in front of dog. Dog gets nose under ball and pushes 3 feet or more.
9. Dog in a stand, ball placed in front of dog. Dog pushes ball 12 inches.
10. Dog in a stand, ball placed in front of dog. Dog gets nose under ball and pushes 3 feet or more.
11. Dog in a stand pushes a ball 10 feet with his nose.

Here are several objects and suggested tasks you can practice shaping your dog to do.
To get the most of these object-based shaping practice examples, avoid using luring if you can.

*Paw touch a 12 inch target on the floor.
*Go to a mat and lay down starting with him standing off the mat. (targets his body onto the mat)
*Push a ball 10 feet with his nose while standing (could be with one push or with multiple pushes). Use a ball that is too large to fit in his mouth and difficult for him to pick up.
*Put his front feet onto a small stool.
*Sit on a small stool.
*Walk with his feet between the rungs of a ladder that is laying on the ground.
*Pull a 12 inch *(or so) child’s plastic toy 10 feet.
*Walk all the way around an object such as a bucket or chair.

Progress through each object at your own speed. If you notice that your dog is getting frustrated, you will need to change some aspect of your training. Are you waiting too long between clicks for another behavior? What would be an intermediate step between what you dog is offering and the next step you want him to do? Can you use your body to reposition him? Do you need to move the object so he is in closer contact with it and he can't help but touch it in some way? Maybe setting up some physical barriers to confine him may help. Do you need to add some lenght to the tug rope or perhaps play with it before you start shaping to 'get him in the mood to interact with it'?

When you have completed these, go back and devise a new behavior with each of the same objects. For example, on the stool, ask the dog to place his front feet on it, and back feet on the floor, then shape him to step to each side a half step, then a full step, then pivoting all the way around in each direction. This helps teach back end awareness which is very useful for service dogs-getting out of the way of a wheelchair, backing into a tight resting spot etc.

What else can you do with each object?

Here are a couple of videos that demonstrate Object-based shaping. The first is Jessie and she has been shaped on all of the objects listed above and had been doing clicker training for about 6 months. This is her first try at shaping the light switch.
Shaping light switch-Jessie

The second dog has had extensive experience with shaping and has been clicker trained her whole life. She is about 1.5 yrs old
Savvy Learns Ring Toss

Before you dive in, here are 10 Laws of Shaping as defined by Karen Pryor. They will help you to improve your shaping skills quickly. If you don't understand some of the terms, please ask us!

See our post on Free-shaping