I love shaping. I love teaching a dog how much fun shaping can be. It takes the dog just a few minutes to understand what shaping is, and then: hold on and be ready to click – the dog loves this new game!
What is shaping, you ask? Imagine a sculptor with a chunk of clay. How does he get that clay from chunk to masterpiece? He shapes it with his hands, slowly changing the form, until it meets the artist's satisfaction. That's what we do with the behavior of an animal: we take whatever "chunk" of behavior the dog gives us, and we slowly mold that behavior into something we like. We use the clicker to tell the dog "Yes, I like that!" If the dog knows the way to earn a click (and therefore a goodie), it's only a matter of a few clicks before you've got the dog creating behavior that matches what you wanted to see.
If you want to try it with your own dog, here's what you need:
- Clear the room – no other dogs allowed. Keep the distractions to a minimum.
- Have high value treats. No dog food, biscuits, or Pupperoni. We're talking ham, turkey, cheese, chicken, or hot dogs!
- Have a large object ready to put on the floor. Put the object down, step back, and zip your lips!
- Click the dog for any interaction with that object. This is not the time to be stingy or to have high expectations.
- Remain still. Remain quiet. Resist the urge to help your dog.
I made a video of Talos learning how to shape. (At the bottom of this post.) The sound isn't very good (sorry, I'll remember this for the next video), so you may have to turn your volume way up. Originally, I thought I might shape Talos to use his feet to interact with the box. But it turns out he's not that advanced yet – he's still learning that interacting with the box is a good thing. So I decided to lower my criteria and reinforce any and all interactions with the box.
At one point, Talos stops, sits, and waits for me to direct him to do something with the box. That indicates to me that he doesn't understand fully what shaping is all about. And that's ok! That's why I didn't raise my criterion to paw touch. The more experience he has with shaping, the better he'll get.
Why is shaping important? Your dog is learning how to learn – which is the most important reason to work on shaping. Another thing, it's FUN for the dog! Your dog gets to engage with you, work his mind, and try to figure out how to get you to click. The more you practice shaping with your dog, the faster he'll be able to figure out a solution. So when you actually need to teach a new behavior, it's super easy!
Now here's the video of Talos shaping: