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While shaping is usually used to teach a new behavior to a dog, it can also be used to fine tune a behavior or even reshape an old one or parts of a known one. Shaping can be applied to large behavior changes or fine tuning behaviors.

Think of shaping a behavior as a process of revision. Rewriting a book is shaping that book into a different form to a higher degree of detail. For dogs it might be teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash. Heeling is a finer precision of walking on a loose leash.

How do you do this?
1. Select which criteria you want to improve.
Every behavior has more than one part that makes up the whole behavior. This is criteria. Is it timing, movement, speed of response, finesse, accuracy of a behavior? Do trial of 10 repetitions for one behavior. Note your dog’s proficiency in it. Is the whole behavior where you would like it? Is there a part of it you would like to improve? Note which ones your dog needs improvement with. You can shape each of these separately.

2. For each criteria, select for the better responses.
Repeat 10 repetitions and see how many times out of 10 that your dog actually does the criteria to your satisfaction. Is it 5 out of 10? To move to the next level you want it to be at least 8/10.
Dogs are not computers and each time they do a behavior there is variability in how they perform it. A behavior might be harder, longer, more focused, superfluous etc. It is this variability that allows us to shape behaviors.

3. Practice only that part of a behavior you want to improve the criteria, this time clicking/treating only for those behaviors that meet your slightly higher requirements.

So to reshape your dog to be more gentle with his teeth (and more aware that there are toes under your sock) focus on the first part of the pull only. Maybe in 10 repetitions, your dog grabs your sock roughly 4 times and slightly more gently 6 times before pulling it all the way off. Click only the more gentle grabs and he need not pull the sock all the way off. Keep practicing until you notice that your dog is able to offer the gentler grabs 8/10 times.

Tip: If you raise your requirements too fast, your dog will not get c/t and will get frustrated and may quit. You must be observant to ensure that you are raising your criteria at a level appropriate to your dog's current abilities so she can still have success but start slightly modifying her behavior to match your shaping plans.

Now increase your requirements so this time your dog takes the sock a little more gently 8/10 times (or more). Increase your requirements slightly again. Does he still need more improvement? Keep practicing and increasing his required gentleness and only select those behaviors which are slightly more gentle.

Keep upping the requirements in little steps until your dog is able to offer the behavior you desire consistently. Then add the new criteria as part of the whole behavior.

Example 1:
Placing a coin into a small container is really an exercise in shaping. You need to work on two different shaping criteria separately.
1. Size of object being retrieved and placed.
2. Size of the opening the object is being placed into.

1. Size of object being retrieved and placed.
Start with an object that is comfortable size and familiar to your dog. Practice with this until he is successful 8/10 or more. Then choose a slightly smaller object and practice with that until 8/10 successful. Continue in this vein until your dog is able to pick up and carry very small items such as coins (start with largest coins and work down), a chain of paper clips, a ring etc. If you are introducing a new material to your dog, you may need to do some separate training until your dog is comfortable it before decreasing size of object further-metal is a good example)

2. Size of the opening the object is being placed into.
During a separate training session, start with a laundry basket your dog can easily reach into. Then when he is successful placing objects into that, try a slightly smaller box. Then a smaller one, then a plastic bucket, then a plastic container with a smaller opening. Notice that you are slowly decreasing the size of the target area where your dog drops the object. At some point you will need to switch to smaller and smaller objects so do that training first. Train your way down in size to the narrow-mouthed container.

Now you can combine the criteria to finish with the final behavior-your dog retrieves a coin and places it into a narrow-mouthed jar. Congratulations, you have just shaped two criteria and put them together to get a finished behavior!

Example 2
Don’t like the way your dog delivers retrieved objects to you? Reshape that end part of the retrieve. Start from where he is at, and determine what criteria you need to work on. Is it how accurately he can target your hand? (see above for process) or that he lets go as soon as he touches your hand with his nose? Work on only that part of the skill before you start adding it to the whole retrieve behavior chain. The dog must learn to push objects into your hand and hold them there until you to give a release cue.

Why do You Retrain Only One Part of a Complicated Behavior?
If you wait until the dog has completed a whole behavior to click, he has no way to know which part of the behavior he did well and which part he did substandard. Was was too boisterous in running to get the object? Was he sloppy in picking it up? Was he slow in returning to you? Did he drop it on the floor at your feet? Because there are so many parts to a behavior, you really need to zero in on the part that he is not performing as well as you would like. Work on that, then integrate it by chaining it back into the larger behavior.

What Behaviors Do you Want to Improve?
Break them down into their criteria and reshape each part as necessary!

Click here to see a previous post on Shaping.  Want Some help with Shaping? Book a web cam session with Donna

Shaping: The Most Powerful Use of the Clicker

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.

1. Luring
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!

Using Free Shaping to Teach a New Behavior 

Free Shaping
Free shaping allows the dog to offer behaviors, no matter how small, toward a final behavior. The trainer captures them by clicking and treating at the exact moment the behavior occurs. There is no luring and no cuing. It is a silent process with only the clicker and treats doing the talking.

It sometimes helps the human part of the partnership to use a visual marker to measure increments of behavior. Pieces of tape on the ground, a pattern on a floor mat, chalk marks on a wall, a string marking a height, a watch timer in seconds etc.

For this type of shaping, it is really important to define your final objective, and brainstorm the step by step process your dog will likely do to get there.

You can click ANY behavior that is the slightest bit towards the final behavior you want to see. A glance downwards, a head dip both start towards a down. An ear flick in your direction, a neck muscle twitch, a slight head turn, an eye blink, an eye closed, the twitch of a leg muscle prior to actually moving, the dip of a bum, etc. The finer behavior you can click, the more aware your dog will be of both his body and what behavior he is offering and what you are paying for.

Once your dog has some shaping experience, you can select for bigger behaviors as you know that if you wait for them, the dog will offer it if she doesn't get clicked immediately. You can also go for some of the subtle or difficult behaviors.

Some tips:
* Shaping takes a lot of concentration so you should choose a reward that motivates your dog to concentrate on you, but not be overexcited about getting the treat. Soft treats that can be eaten quickly allow him to get back to the shaping game quickly. Crumbly ones slow the process by distracting him.

*Always start shaping a new behavior in a quiet environment with no distractions. Even experienced shaping dogs need to have some quiet space to learn.

*Start new dogs by free shaping behaviors they already know on cue. Sit, down, spin etc. You will find they retain the behavior better and will be quick to offer it as part of a different shaping process at a later date.

*Use wait time to your advantage: Waiting for a repeat of a behavior before clicking usually causes results in an increase in the behavior out of frustration (waiting for a second nose push will result in the second nose push that is harder or longer, asking for two grabs of a stick will prompt the second grab to be longer or harder, waiting for a second paw touch with result in a scratch with the nails or a larger paw swipe, waiting for a second bark may get you a louder bark.)

*The first few times of free shaping, help your dog by making his task easy as possible. Start with a narrow channel to get a straight back up, a small space to get eye contact, create a limited area for you dog to move so the choices are fewer, place an object in his way so he has to move around it to do the desired behavior etc. Be creative!

* Slowly build up the number of clicks you do with your dog between breaks. Start with 10, take a one minute break. Then do another 10, give a break. Do another 10 and quit. Build up number of clicks per training session slowly as your dog develops his attention span and shows that he is enjoying the sessions and is eager to offer more behaviors.

* To speed shaping OF very complicated behaviors, you may want to train similar behaviors that will help your dog to more quickly get the idea of what you want. For example, alternate playing a game of pivot back feet around a phone book with sessions of eye contact helps your dog to more quickly learn that he must move his back legs to swing his bum around to your left and into heel position (called a swing finish). This is called crossing over behaviors, and your dog will blend the two behaviors.

* Watch for signs of frustration at a particular step. These may include scratching, stretching, yawning, sniffing the ground, barking, easily distracted, laying down when it's not appropriate, refusal to offer more behaviors etc.

* Stop a training session while your dog is still eagerly offering behaviors and is having fun. If he gets too frustrated, s/he will stop playing the game, walk away, stop offering behaviors or get too physical with you, demand the treats etc. Use a cue such as “game over” to indicate he is done.

* Have fun with shaping!

Some Behaviors That Lend Themselves to Free Shaping:

Backing up
Standing in front of you facing you close in
Eye Contact
Loose Leash Walking
Come (all the way to you in a sit position and you hold the collar)
Pulling off socks (shape a gentler and gentler approach with teeth)
Shaping a positive reaction to another dog, or child or fearful situation.
Shaping a calm behavior on a mat while stimulating things are going on around you.

Free-shaping can also be using with object-based shaping.

Don’t forget that you can also shape just part of a behavior and then chain it with several others to create a new behavior.

See also our post on Object-based shaping.

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

Before you travel by air, make sure you know the new (Dec. 2020) general transport laws around air travel in planes with a service dog. Each airline varies in their interpretation of the laws and will have different specifics but all must fall within the US-wide guidelines. 
This document outlines what they may and may not require for travel. 
Click here.

Canada and other countries may be currently adjusting their regulations as well to match these since many flights are international. Check the details with your country's transport department before you fly and read the individual airline's regulations. Also check the country regulations for your return trip (especially if you are doing one way travel with a break in between). 

Service Dog Training Institute is now offering CEU's for a webinar and a class. 
If you are a member of a professional dog training organization, then you may want to consider taking the 10 question multiple choice quiz so you can apply to them for CEU's.
Even if you are not a member, professional development is important for learning when training assistance dogs! Employers love to see evidence that you are improving your knowledge and skills all the time.

Click Here to see information on CEU. 

Have you ever noticed that when you get on the phone or a web chat tat your dog suddenly needs all your attention? He might come over to you to ask for attention, crawl n your lap, or maybe whine or bark? It’s not only annoying when you are focused on something else, it is also rude to the person you are talking to. Training your dog to be able to relax during your conversations is a skill that needs to be deliberately taught. 
Prepare for the session: have a frozen stuffed Kong that will last 30 min or more, a chew toy that your dog will actually chew, and a food puzzle. Yes, multiple items to last more than the full duration of your conversation.
Tire your dog out just before the session-go for a walk, do a training or play session. Be clear and consistent that when you are done, you are done training. Give her a signal like “all done.” and mean it. 
For weeks ahead of time, condition your dog to settle or relax on her own for at least 30 min before doinging a longer conversation. This might be on a mat, in a x-pen or crate, depending go the age of your dog. Remember that duration needs to be added incrementally just like for any other behaviour, Avoid asking for too much or you will frustrate your dog. 
During your talking session, avoid feeding treats to interrupt barking. Unfortunately, when you are not paying 100% attention to training, you may inadvertently be reinforcing the attention seeking behaviours. The dog barks he gets a treat. Timing is everything. If you can’t focus only on your dog, avoid using treats (even if it’s partly your dog's breakfast or supper) and pets.
Do set up practice sessions: pretend to talk to someone on the phone or web cam. Start with short duration, then add time as the dog is able to. Vary the time as well so it’s not always getting harder (snakes and ladders approach). Reward the dog only when she’s relaxed and not paying attention to you. (See our Settle / Relax class for a conditioned settle if your dog stares at you, whines or gets frustrated with you for not looking at her.)
When actually talking, prepare ahead of time and start with short sessions. Schedule several sessions with a relative, friend or neighbour. Talk to someone who knows that you are actively training and may need to interrupt your chat infrequently. Avoid talking about anything important.
Cuing your dog to interact with the person on the video may help some dogs. If your dog can see high definition images on a larger screen, then cuing her to interact with the person may be helpful to acclimate her. Ask “Can you see?” and point to the screen. Have the person use her name while talking to her, make high-pithed noise etc. A smaller dog can be held on your lap or sit on a chair for a short period f you are using a table top computer that you cannot move to the dog’s level. 
With practice, most dogs lose interest in why you are talking to a screen.Again, when you are done, let her know so she can go lay down.
Repeat the fake and real training sessions on a regular basis. With multiple repeats, your dog will learn that you talking to someone else, is a time that he can use to have a snooze. Over time you can generalize this behaviour by training it in different rooms, and taking it on the road away from home. Patience when you are busy is a skill your service dog needs to have that you can prepare her for. 

Dealing with Stress During Covid 19

This is a tumultuous time! During the various shut downs that are happening across the world and election uncertainty, everyone has different ways to deal with stress. As Christmas approaches, those feelings intensify for most people. I am going to diverge from service dog training on this post and share what I do for self-care in case it might be helpful to some of you! All of these things help me to cope with the stress that is going on in the world. If you want to learn more about what happens to the body during stress, check out our "Stress and the Service Dog" webinar. It applies to us humans as much as it does the dogs! 

Remember the Serenity Prayer

"Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
The courage to change the things I can.
And the wisdom to know the difference.”

Let things go that you can’t control. Have you ever looked up the definition of ‘worry’? Look it up now! Avoid worrying about things you can’t control. Do what you can now, but be realistic about your level of control over a specific situation. 

Turn off the Media

The media is focussed on the negatives in the world. While you can certainly stay in touch with a daily read, watch or listen, avoid living moment to moment all day with it in the background. Most of the topics they publish are designed to earn advertising dollars. Most of it is doom, gloom and hype at least in my opinion. Negativity and death sells. Positivity does not. In fact the media has a separate category for “feel good” stories that’s how few and far between they are! Monitor yourself after you want a newscast. Do you feel better or worse about your situation? If it’s worse, you definitely need to cut down how much you want. See your definition of worry in the paragraph above. 

Do What you Enjoy Doing at Least Once Every Day! 

Allow yourself to get lost in it. Turn off your phone, computer and tv. Turn on some music you enjoy. For me, nature makes me happy and the hours go by quickly and enjoyably. I go for a backwoods walk with my dogs. I collect pine cones. I poke about in streams and ponds. I feed and tend to my fish and raise live food for them. I also enjoy doing crafts. In the evening, I turn on a happy movie and do my crafts. I also love reading both fiction and non-fiction. Right now, I am rereading Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. It's a perfect topic for now!

Connect With Others

Connecting can help us to feel less alone. I phone my mom and stick to positive topics. I web chat my sister and we do crafts together. It feels like we are sitting in the same room crafting together. I call up friends and colleagues for a chat or in-person outside walk. Bruce (my spouse) and I do activities together a few times a week (watch movies, take the dogs out, do a craft we both enjoy, do something towards home improvement etc). That might be something as simple as putting up the Christmas lights, raking the yard or more complex like building a stand for our aquariums. Anything that is sure to be stressful such as big projects have been shelved for now as we don't have the spoons or bandwidth to deal with them should they go sideways. Big projects tend to do that! Smiley wink!

On Thanksgiving (early October in Canada), I took Lucy (my dog) for a walk and I noticed a woman sitting on a bench near our local arena. Since she was by herself, I thought she might appreciate someone wishing her Happy Thanksgiving! She did and 2 hours later after discovering we had so much in common, we had developed a fast friendship! Plans were made for another meeting! I forgot to mention, this woman is 91 years old and still living on her own! I thought she was much younger! Now that’s highly motivating to meet someone like that! 

Spend Time with Your Dog

I train and play with my senior dogs. I may teach them something new or polish something already known. Sometimes we just hang out and cuddle on the couch watching TV. I make sure to get them both out for a daily walk. Sometimes it’s just a sniff walk, others it is a long brisk walk to the Post Office. They enjoy a massage now and then as well as husbandry stuff like doing teeth, nail and ears. That can be fun too if you take it slow and use food and toys to desensitize.

Find Ways to Help Other People 

That takes your focus off you and you can help other people. Three examples come to mind. My senior neighbour went into the hospital a few months ago and she was just admitted to a senior care home. She is sitting in there alone and knows no-one in town but us and her house cleaner she’s had for years. Her son lives a 4 hour ferry trip away. So I make her cards, write a chatty note in each and often include a small home-made gift to cheer her up. Then I drive down to the hospital and drop the card/gift at the front door. I know she appreciates it as I got a phone call one night from her after we came home. I can hardly wait to call her once she is settled in her new place! I also pick up her mail from home and safe keep it until her son comes as well. These outings double as a car ride for the dogs and I might stop somewhere for a walk with them in a new location.

My second example involves my mom. She is 93 years old and lives in a senior care home that is in total lock down (in another province). That means no access for her to even go for a walk outside her building which my mom loves to do. In the winter they do not even let them out on the patio for fresh air (plus it’s also well below freezing where she lives.) I contacted the head nurse and asked her if I could prepare some craft materials for the residents and ship it to them. She enthusiastically agreed. A week later the parcel arrived and the residents were making happy pine cone flowers for a flower wall. I also send cards and parcels to my mom. Even if she forgets it a minute after she opens them, at least she had a minute of happiness! Everyone likes to receive a present! And occasionally she does remember and thanks me for thinking of her!

A third example is putting some thought into what food or items might be of interest and helpful to someone living in shut down. A care package, if you will! This Christmas, mom is going to get a fruit basket from us. In the care home, they offer a limited selection of both fruit and vegetables and mom misses the ones that the rest of us have easy access to at the grocery store. Believe it or not, apples are luxury, not because they don’t get them, but because of the type of apple they choose to make available. Hard green apples that no-one likes end up getting thrown out. Seniors with dentures have a hard time biting into them. I send softer and well-known apples like Spartans and MacIntoshes. These are easy for a senior with limited hand dexterity and strength to cut with a butter knife and chew. Staff are often too busy to take the time to even slice up an apple! Look at the limitations they have and what you could send that would make life easier and more enjoyable.

Last year, I sent mom a fruit platter just before Christmas and a veggies platter just before New Year’s Day. Of course, she got to share it with the other residents and staff! This was a bonus as she enjoys sharing as it makes her the centre of attention. In previous years, my sister sent a roll of stamps, envelopes and writing paper. Mom loved to write letters and thank you’s so this fit her needs perfectly as she couldn’t get out to a post office! What else might someone need?

Work on Projects that are Meaningful to You! 

I love writing and I particularly love writing about things that allow me to spend more time in my happy place! My most recent project is writing up a nature blog for the crafts I am working on and the animals I am culturing. It is so simple with technology now to take a photo every now and then during the creation process. Then I get to write a description up and put a bit of my personality into the writing. I get to lay things out my way! The photos get added in as I write! Fun! Check out my new blog!

Get Daily Brisk Exercise
By brisk, I mean your heart rate increases a little above what you normally get when you walk or exercise.The key is to aim for a minimum of 12 minutes. I almost didn't include this as it is so ingrained in my daily activities, but it is key. It doesn't matter what you do, even if you are limited to sitting in a chair, you can get your heart rate up. I made a pledge to every dog that comes in my home that they will get out and do some form of brisk exercise every day. That makes it easy for me to get it too. Be careful not to just toss a ball though as while the dog might get a good work out, only your arm does. That is not enough for your health or to relieve stress.

Eat Well
Another really basic but often overlooked way to de-stress is to eat fresh foods. Even if all you do it swap out some fresh fruit or vegetable for processed food or sugar product, that will help! Sugar causes inflammation and inflammation is stressful on your body. 

Sign up for Free Webinars and Group Chats 

There are literally tons of them being hosted by great dog training organizations. The one I sign into every week is the Karen Pryor "Live from the Ranch” where Ken Ramirez hosts different guest speakers and they show live training of different animals and also host a weekly challenge! You will get some new ideas about training and if you need CEU’s you can use these for that too! Here’s a link: 

Check to see if online conferences or memberships you have previously signed up for still give you access to the presentations. I attended Fenzi Dog Sports Academy's conference and have not yet made my way through all of the speaker presentations. As an IAABC Supporting member, I have access to a library of webinars. I have watched most of them but new ones are also being added. What do you already have access to that you are not using? Podcasts are another good resource that is free. There are many that I have really enjoyed listening to. 

Jenn Hauta and I have also started to check in more often with students in our Service Puppy and Foundation Skills classes. Our goal is to help students connect with others so they can be accountable in training. Nothing heavy, just putting face to a name at first, then setting a simple goal each week. It’s so fun to see the faces week to week! We might even use a Facebook room now and then in the bigger SDTI student and alumni group. Watch for it! 

Down Time

While it might sound like I am going great guns, I also find it important to give myself plenty of down time. That gives me time to process what is going on. I am not busy all the time. I tend to schedule only one activity per day. The rest is just the process of living.

I allow myself twice a day to keep in touch with the outside world via e-mail and social media and do some related research to see the basis of claims I read, but then I shut it off. I try to make sure I am off social media at least an hour before bedtime.

It is so freeing to be able to walk away and not worry about what is happening! At the same time, if I feel I CAN do something, then I will. I will do it and let it go. I find action is the thing that helps me deal with things when I am feeling like the world is out of control. I control the things I can, and let go of the others. Maybe at some point in the future I will be able to do something as things change. I will be ready when that time comes. 

Building a Better Balance in Life That Works for Each of Us is Important

Just like in training a service dog, we will have to experiment a little before we find what works for us! And what works today may not work next month. Life is ever-changing and interesting! More positive things are to come in the future. Hang in there! Feel free to take one or more of my ideas and make them your own!

Communication with Your Service Dog In Training

Developing a working relationship with your service dog or assistance dog is all about having good communication both ways between you and your dog.

What is Communication?
Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behaviour”. Notice communication is two way and there is no reference to “verbal”? Interesting!

Body Language: A Dog’s Natural Tendency
For canines, using body language to determine another individual’s intention is a skill that is learned easily. These natural tendencies transfer easily to humans if the dog has been exposed to functional people when they are growing up and learning social skills. This might mean looking at your eyes to determine what you are looking at, using their periphery to see shoulders, hips or feet orientation to predict where they are going or looking at their face to see their emotions. Some dogs are better at it than others, but they all have this tendency towards body language as their primary mode of communication.

Hand signals are a subset of body language. Any motion by the handler’s hands, arms, knees or feet or even a head nod, especially if it is associated with a specific behavior, context or object, will be noticed by an attentive dog and can be used to communicate.

Environmental Cues
Often what is in their environment and how they use objects in that environment can cue (tell) the dog what behavior is needed. A round object on the wall is a cue to push it to open a door. A curb is a place to stop and wait until cued to move forward. The harness a dog wears becomes associated with a specific job like pulling forward and is part of the cue for the pulling behavior when the handle is gripped. The specific cues can be learned very quickly if they are specifically taught in those environments with the objects, rather than assuming the dog will figure it out on their own through repetition.

Verbal Cues
Interestingly, verbal communication is low on most dog’s way of preferred communication. Verbal is different than vocal which are sounds the dog naturally makes like whining, barking etc. Verbal refers to the sounds and syllables that make up words. Most dogs can learn verbal cues associated with movement (sit, down, bring, find etc) quite easily. Some dogs find it very difficult to learn verbal cues that are not related to movement. Words that modify nouns and verbs (like left and right, higher and lower, bigger or smaller etc) can take quite awhile for most dogs to learn.

Some people think they need to bark out commands with a short sharp tone to get their dog to do a behavior. Instead, using a normal tone and regular speed and loudness is all that is needed. Given the time and opportunity to figure it out, most dogs will pick up the key words from a sentence and do what you need her to do. Some common examples are getting the dog’s leash or harness or your shoes before you go out for a walk, as long as they are accessible to the dog. Most dogs are highly motivated to learn verbal cues for these as they predict a walk. If the dog enjoys doing other behaviors too, then she is likely to pick up those words too. You can then generalize the learning of verbal cues.

How Can You Help Your Dog?
1. Take the time to figure out and teach body cues that help your dog predict your behavior in the next few seconds. For example, instead of turning abruptly to your left, shorten your stride a bit on the step just before the turn so you take an extra step. This gives the dog time to react to the change. We tend to do this naturally when not in formal training sessions and the dog quickly learns to watch our feet or other body parts as a predictor we are turning.

2. Tell your dog what you are planning to do in advance of doing the behavior. Teach him hand cues, then verbal cues verbal cues like slow and stop, Let’s go or left or right as their own behavior. Then, if you use these words, he will already know what they mean and will just need help generalizing them to other situations. Getting up from a settle is a good example where it is important to teach him an intermediary behavior like a nose target to get him up from the ground and give him a chance to wake up and stretch before moving away with you.

3. Teach your dog the environmental cues for specific behaviors or tasks. Back chain their use such as approaching a door opening button from further and further away. Take the time to teach them in many different environments until your dog can figure them out on their first visit to a new location. If you don’t know what back chaining is, join our "Foundation Skills for Service Dogs" class that will teach you this and many other ways to help your dog learn and generalize skills.

4. Learn Dog Body Language. Our dogs are communicating to us all the time! We may not be aware of what they are trying to tell us and instead wait until the dog is giving us huge signals and then we react to their ‘loud’ communication, often in anger or frustration. By learning to read more subtle signs of stress and excitement, we can acknowledge something is happening to our dog and head it off before the situation escalates. This is particularly important if the dog alerts to our stress. We are a big part of our dog’s environment and he reacts to our medical and emotional behavior. That is why they make such great assistance animals! Take a course or two on canine behavior and body language. You can start here by taking Donna’s online self-paced class “Dog as a Second Language” at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.

Taking the time to make sure that your dog really understands what you are communicating and also that you understand what he is communicating to him can make the difference between a good partnership and a great one with your service dog!

Your approach to dog training can make or break your service dog's success! Everyone has skills in some areas and not in others. Knowing if you tend toward being a "recipe trainer" or a "concept trainer" can help you know what to focus on to improve your training.

Check out this chart to contrast the two approaches. Where do you fall on the continuum between the two types? 

Recipe Trainer

Concept Trainer

is skills-based. They follow a lesson plan to teach specific skills only. is theory-based. They learn and understand the principles such as systematic desensitization, counter conditioning, operant conditioning, Premack's Principle, capturing, shaping and chaining.
is a procedural learner. They memorize but not understand what they are doing or why. They are great at following step by step directions from someone else and may vary it a bit but that’s it. It is very much like following a cooking recipe. You measure each part but are afraid to test the parameters as you might wreck the product. is principle learner. They can apply (generalize) the principles and concepts to teaching many behaviors and situations.

believes that one training plan can work for all dogs knows their dog's specific learning style and can choose training approaches and recipes that best suit that specific dog
has weak observation skills and poor interpretation of their dog's body language. Doesn't know or understand natural dog behavior.   has strong observation skills and can interpret their dog's body language and use that to change the course of a training session. Understands canine ethology.
focusses on short-term goals. Teaches only specific behaviors to pass a test such as those needed for the Public Access test for service dogs. keeps long term concepts in mind while teaching the smaller goals. Teaches the broader goals of being safe in public, being calm and reliable in public and working as part of a team. 
hopes the dog will figure out how to react appropriately in public prepares the dog for the unpredictability of real life in public using systematic desensitization, counter conditioning etc. as needed
limited ability to apply recipe to other behaviors applies principles, situations, tasks and to teach concepts. Teaches the dog many examples of the concept so she can learn it. An example is duration. If the dog is taught to hold her nose to a target, wait at a door, stay in a relaxed down, hold an object in her mouth and look at you, each calmly for a duration of time, the dog starts to understand that patience gets her what she wants. 
rarely reviews or evaluates what they have done and why it worked or didn't work regularly reflects on and analyzes training and situations and applies changes to current ones
tries to solve specific problems without seeing the bigger behavior patterns involved looks for patterns in behaviors and between behaviors. They use critical thinking skills and categorize and organize information using logic.
has hard time breaking behaviors into smaller steps when they haven't seen someone else do it first. understands the smaller pieces that make up behaviors. For example, a nose nudge is made up of three behaviors or a retrieve is at least 6 different behaviors. 
 follows what others have done  creative thinkers for behaviors and problem solving

Concept Training

In human and dog training, concept learning is key since there are so many different behaviors the handler and a service dog need. They also face so many different daily challenges. Learning to teach your dogs conceptually means that you can figure out how to teach any behavior or task you will need as your medical condition changes as well as being able to teach your own successor service dogs with less guidance. This will save you money and is also empowering and fun! Your dog will learn faster once you have put in the time to learn the theory upfront.

Problem Solving Examples
Conceptual learners are good problem solvers. They are creative in applying what they know. They seldom need help with teaching their dog new skills. They see the big picture while also seeing the immediate picture and how they fit together. Conceptual knowledge allows the trainer to break the steps down when they are teaching their dog. This is especially helpful for problem-solving since they can isolate the problem part of the behavior and reteach that.

Example 1.
A procedural learner would ask:
“How do I get my dog to ignore people while working?”
She would receive the list resources (such as a step by step approach, human helpers etc.) that was given to her, and then apply them so the dog would not engage with people.

In contrast, a conceptual learner would ask:
“What is the general approach I can take to help desensitize my dog to a trigger?”
And with a few general ideas from others, would be able to create a plan on her own, identify what resources are needed for the plan and carry it out. In addition, she would be able to recognize and apply the ideas to other situations that need desensitization such as overexcitement, fear of people, other dogs and animals, loud noises, etc.

Example 2.
When faced with a dog that has low interest in doing a specific behavior or task, a procedural learner would ask:
“How can I get my dog more excited about performing my medical task?”

In contrast, a conceptual learner would ask:
“What principle can I use to increase my dog's enthusiasm for the task?

The conceptual answer would be: “You can apply Premack’s Principle to increase his enthusiasm for the task.” If the handler didn’t know what Premack’s principle was, they could research it and see some examples of how to apply it, then generalize those ideas to their specific situation.

Example 3.
A procedural learner asks: “How would I prepare my dog for going to a concert?”

A conceptual learner would ask: “What specific things would I need to desensitize my dog to to prepare him to attend an indoor concert with me.”

The first is looking for an a, then b, then c type answer. In other words, they want you to tell them how to do it step by step. The second is asking for ideas of specific criterion they need to train for that they might not have considered (especially if they have never been to an indoor concert before). They already have a broad plan in place (using desensitization) they are just looking for things they might have missed.

Look at Other People's Questions
Take a look in various dog training groups on social media and look for the types of questions people ask. From them, you can tell what kind of trainer they are and what types of answers that would be helpful for each. A recipe trainer wants a step by step answer, perhaps one that considers all the "What if's". A concept trainer only needs to be pointed to the principles that apply and they can figure out the rest of the process.

The good news is everyone can learn to improve their concept training! That will allow them to deal with any situation that arises and to train any behavior, skill or task their service dog may need. That will save money and hassles in the long run.

Improve Your Knowledge!
If you want to begin learning the theory and skills behind training your dog as a service dog, take a look at our online "Foundation Skills" self-paced classes. Then if you want to keep learning, check out our other classes such as Loose Leash Walking, Settle/Relax and Public Access Level 1 and 2 (Preparation for Public Access). Between the four classes, you will learn the major teaching Principles and how to apply them so can train your own service dog to be a safe, responsive partner for you in life.

Booking a one hour session or more with Donna can also help you pinpoint what principles you need to learn more about to improve your service dog training skills.

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