This is the third article in a series designed to bring the nuts and bolts of dog training directly to you.
Our past articles have explained the laws of behavior and the tools to modify behavior. Logically, our next article covers how to teach behavior – how to teach your dog to do what you want.
You already know, from the last article, that teaching what you want your dog to do is much easier than telling him all the things you don’t want him to do. So: now what? Knowing what you should be doing provides only half of the solution. Now you need to know how to do it.
Consider the laws of behavior from our first article:
- if you reinforce a behavior, you get more of it and
- a behavior that doesn’t get reinforced goes away. With that information, you have the first piece of the puzzle: find the behavior you like, tell the dog you like it, and reinforce it!
Let’s look at each of those things in a little more detail so you can start teaching your dog new – appropriate and desirable – things to do (instead of the annoying and inappropriate things).
Gather your tools.
You’re going to need a way to tell the dog exactly when he does what you like and then reinforce that behavior, too. So you’re going to need two things: a clicker (or other similar noisemaker) and tiny, pea-sized pieces of food (the tastier the food, the better). Go ahead – use real people-food! It usually works quickly and – bonus – you can eat it, too!
Identify the behavior you like.
The behavior you like is probably the opposite of what your dog is currently doing. Finish this sentence: Instead of jumping (or whatever behavior you don’t like), I would like my dog to do ____________. You know you don’t like jumping. But what would you like the dog to do instead of jumping. You have to know that before you go to the next step. Focus on just one or two things like “stand” or “sit.” Your answer can’t contain “don’t jump!”
Mark the behavior you like.
The two new vocabulary words in this article are:
- capture and
These are the two ways we’re going to “get behavior.”
Capture. When you capture behavior, you get the whole thing at once. Dogs don’t sit a little bit at a time – they either sit or they don’t. There’s no sitting halfway. So sitting is an easy behavior to capture. Lying down is another easy behavior to capture – there’s not really a way for a dog to “lie down a little bit.”
Shape. When you shape a behavior, it’s a lot like shaping a piece of clay. You start out with a big blob of clay, and then as you work your hands through the clay, you shape it to the size and dimension you’d like. It happens a little at a time – you can’t go from a ball of clay to a bowl in just one step; it takes time to get the clay moved around in just the right way to make a bowl. Shaping behavior is done the very same way: you start with a goal behavior, then from the raw material and you selectively click for closer and closer approximations toward the goal.
Real Life Example
Your complaint: The dog won’t listen.
(That’s not specific enough – what do you specifically want the dog to do?)
Your revised complaint: The dog jumps on visitors when they come into the house.
Desired behavior: The dog stands (acceptable) or sits (preferred) when people come into the house.
Behavior you’ll capture: standing or sitting.
After you capture standing or sitting, we still need to give that behavior a word (put that behavior on cue) and strengthen it so it will happen with distractions (when people ring the doorbell), and duration (so the dog can hold the sit for awhile, so people can enter and the dog remains seated). Next month’s article will teach you how to put that behavior on cue.
How to Capture
Have your clicker handy during the times you think it’s likely the dog will sit. Keep an eye on the dog and click whenever he voluntarily sits. It’s really important to note that at this step you’re not asking the dog to sit. You’re just marking it (with the clicker) and reinforcing it (with the delicious, tiny piece of food). Your timing is important: click the clicker the instant your dog’s bum hits the floor. It’s ok if he gets up to eat the treat – with enough repetition, the dog will soon understand that it’s the act of putting his bum on the floor that gets you to click him and he’ll be volunteering the behavior more frequently.
How to Shape
Shaping works best for behaviors that aren’t likely to happen all at once. Take, for instance, lying on a mat. If you plan to capture that behavior, you’ll be waiting a long time – it’s simply too much of a behavior to think that a dog would volunteer that entire behavior all at once.
To shape the behavior, place an appropriate sized mat (I use bathroom mats for this) on the floor between you and the dog. Stand with your feet centered in the middle of the mat, but behind the mat (not on it). Wait for your dog to voluntarily place a paw on the mat. Have that clicker ready – you’re going to click the same instant the dog’s paw touches the mat. Toss the treat off the mat so all the dog’s paws leave the mat. Tossing the treat off the mat sets the dog up so he’s able to come back onto the mat and earn a click and a treat. Within about 20 clicks, your dog will begin to understand that there’s something interesting about that mat and start hanging around in that area more often. Of course, the more often your dog’s hanging out there, the more often he’ll get clicked and treated! Before you know it, the dog is getting a click and treat every single time!
When you see the dog is getting clicked frequently (about 8 times a minute), you hold your click until the dog happens to put two paws on the mat. Repeat the entire process until the dog is putting three paws, then finally all four paws on the mat. The next logical step, after getting all four feet on the mat, is for the dog to sit on the mat.
After the dog is reliably coming to the mat and putting all four paws on the mat, you simply don’t click that any longer. Don’t say anything – just wait. Be ready, though, because you’re going to click the instant your dog sits. Don’t ask him to sit, most dogs will volunteer the sit.
After the dog has figured out that the new way to earn a click is walking onto the mat and sitting, then you’ll click (and always treat) only when the dog lies down on the mat.
It’s not nearly as hard as it sounds! I teach this in all my group classes at Smart Dog University, and I love the surprise in my clients’ eyes when they see their dog volunteering the sit and then the down on the mat!
Here’s our service pup in training, Levi’s, first shaping experience with the mat.
Next month, you’ll learn how to associate a signal (word, hand signal, etc.) to that behavior so you can then ask for it when you need it. If you missed either of our two previous articles, be sure to go back and read them – it’ll make this “chapter” make a lot more sense!