In its broadest sense, shaping occurs anytime we modify a behavior from one form into another using small steps. Changing a child’s yelling behavior in the house to talking quietly. Shaping your teenager from leaving clothes on the floor to placing it in the laundry basket. Realisitically, you don't expect the changes to happen becasue you said so, but they will happen in small increments of change, especially when your kids are reinforced several times at each level.
With dogs, shaping can change a dog’s physical behaviors and emotional reactions.
It can even be applied towards changing behaviors and emtions to environments, other dogs, people, animals etc. Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt is an awesome training program that shapes your dog feel more relaxed and focused in any setting by shaping a variety of criteria such as stress levels, focus, physical barriers, dog activity levels etc. When they all come together, they result in a calm, focussed dog that is ready to work.
What is Shaping in a Clicker Training context?
Before we can answer that we must understand the three ways of getting behavior.
You can get a behavior by using a treat or toy in smelling distance of your dog and moving it from place to place. Your dog will follow it if he is interested in food. For example, luring a dog from a sit into a down you hold the treat at his nose and draw it down and back between his front legs. Hold it there and his front legs will slide forward so he can reach the treat. Or luring him a round an object or over a jump. Tha danger with this method is that the dog may become too focussed on the lure and not paying attention to what he is doing and/or he may not do the ebahvior without the reawrd. It can be a handy way to jumpstart of behavior if it is needed, as long as the lure is phased out quickly and a hand cue replaces it. Targeting is a form of luring.
2. Capturing a behavior.
Capturing makes use of behaviors that dogs commonly do. The dog lays down and you click the instant his elbows hit the ground. I think it helps to think of it as taking a picture of a specific behavior (sit, down, scratch nose with paw, look at you, bow on front legs etc). If the click was a camera, you would have a photo of your dog doing the particular behavior when you clicked. Thsi works well for capturing any compete behaviors a dog naturally does: sit, down, yawn, cover his nose etc. Capturing is also an integral part of shaping. Practice this first and it will help you with your timing for shaping.
3. Shaping a Behavior
The dog learns to play a game of "Guess what my trainer wants me to do?" The dog offers various behaviors until he gets a click and reward that says "Yes, you are on the right track!" Yes, most dogs enjoy being shaped especially if their trainer is good at it too!
Think of shaping as capturing a series of behaviors that lead to a final behavior. For our photo analogy, you take video footage of a behavior, a down, and then select out 10 still photos in that sequence that lead to the final behavior. Each of those intermediate behaviors gets captured and rewarded before the dog gets to the final behavior you want.
For example from a sit to a sphynx down, here are the 10 photo stills you would see (and the behaviors you will capture):
Dog is sitting.
The dog leans forward a little. Click/Treat (C/t).
Then he lowers his head a half inch. C/t.
Lowers head 2 inches, C/t.
Lowers head 6 inches.C/t.
Touches nose to ground C/t.
Shifts weight off front legs, C/t.
Shifts front feet forward.C/t.
Pushes front legs forward a little. C/t.
Pushes front legs out in front alot. C/t.
Places elbows on ground. Jackpot reward!
When you are shaping, your job is to capture your dog doing each of these between and mark the exact moment that he does them- in a progressive order so he can successfully complete the down.
Tip: The important thing is that you click when the dog is moving, not when he is still.
You will need to anticipate his behavior a little as well as observe his behavior closely. Your dog doesn't know you want him to go down, he only knows that if he keeps offering behaviors in the direction of a down, he gets rewarded. A light bulb may go on in his head and he offers exactly what you want. He then may offer several previous behaviors, then the behavior again just to test to see if THAT was what you really wanted.
You need to be aware that he may skip some steps, combine behaviors, add some extra ones in or do something other than what you thought he would do, and you need to be prepared for all these possibilities. That's what makes it so powerful! This irregularity in what the dog offers is what allows you to capture some simple offered behaviors and shape them into really unique and useful finished behaviors!
Shaping is the most powerful use of the click and treat training technique. Your dog remembers the new behavior because he has physically worked his way through it step by step.
Here’s a Human Example:
When you follow someone else in a car to their home where you have never been before, can you find your way back at a later date? Do you even know where you are?
Contrast that with navigating your own way to their house. Could you find your way there again?
In the first example, you are so busy just following the other car that you are missing important landmarks, maybe street names and not able to see the bigger picture of where you are going. When you navigate on your own, you are not only noticing but are actively using the landmarks and have a broader understanding of where you are going.
Dogs Shape Us all the Time!
Our dogs know shaping is powerful because they use it on us all the time! How do you think your dog ended up on your lap while you type on the computer?
With no comfy dog beds in sight, the behavior likely started by him noticing one hand on your lap and him coming over to investigate it. A simple nose touch and he gets a scratch on the head. After a few times of that, the chin is cautiously placed on your lap. That too gets a warm hand tousling his silky fur. Next, he ventures a paw up on the chair and waits to see what reaction he gets. A gentle push off reinforces that (he IS getting touched) so he tries it again. Now he’s standing with both paws on the chair edge and his bright eyes are staring into yours. A slight push with his back legs is all he needs to get all four feet standing in your lap and it’s a short step to settling in and becoming a lap warmer. So, can you turn the tables and shape your dog to what you want him to?
Benefits of Shaping
Using shaping instead of luring or targeting allows your dog to explore new behaviors in little steps (he gets rewarded at each step in the development of the new behavior) and he is actually thinking about his behavior instead of just following a lure or target.
Another benefit is that shaping is often physically easier on the human. The trainer gets to stand or sit still. No more running with the dog back and forth luring him into place (and getting dizzy in the meantime. etc) to get the repetitions needed for him to learn the new behavior. Instead, he learns how to interact with an object or place and also learns to work at a distance from you.
Once both of you have some experience with shaping, you will be able to take him to a new environment and teach him a complicated behavior in a much shorter period of time than it would take with traditional methods. One trainer attended a Rally Obedience trail and noticed that because of the small size of the field, and the fact that the fencing was presented right in front of the dogs at the end of the course, dogs were moving out of heel position and away from their handlers because they didn’t want to run face into that fence.
One shaping savvy competitor noticed this and took 5 minutes to take her dog aside, clicked/treated him to interact safely with the fence, and quickly reshaped a heel almost right into the fence. Hers was the only dog in that trial that successfully qualified that course!
Another trainer (Sue Ailsby) used shaping to teach her dog the basic skills of some pretty complicated behaviors such as fly ball, search and rescue etc during a conference. Everyone was astounded at how quickly her dog learned. It was simply a factor of her and her dog having good teamwork skills, having some previous knoweldge of basic behaviors and using shaping to get the desired behaviors!
Dogs Enjoy Being Shaped
Once they understand how to play, and have several behaviors to offer you, dogs love the shaping game and willingly offer new behaviors. “Will THIS get me a click? How about this? Maybe this!” By marking and rewarding the tiny increments that lead to the final behavior, your dog more quickly understands what is being asked of him, just as you succumbed to his sitting on your lap.
The Challenge of Shaping
Here’s the tough parts of shaping and why some people balk at it or take a long time to get around to learning how to use it:
Shaping can be a conceptually difficult thing for trainers to understand and learn. There are few people willing to show you how to do it and so most people are self-taught.
You must be willing to develop your observation skills to see really subtle behaviors. Most people like to group things into pieces to help them understand (called lumping behaviors). With shaping, you need to think in smaller pieces (called splitting behaviors).
The saying “Yard by Yard Life is Hard, Inch by Inch, It’s a Cinch” is so very true in shaping! If your dog does not understand a chunk of a behavior (lump), you must break it down into its simpler form (split) so he can successfully achieve each of say 4 steps instead of one bigger one. Or that same behavior might need to be divided into 10 steps instead of 4. (finer splitting)
Once you understand shaping, you can apply it to teach other dogs, animals and even people how to learn a new behavior or reshape an existing one. A very useful skill!
See the next blog post on this topic: Object-based Shaping!
Shaping: The Most Powerful Use of the Clicker