Shaping a Behavior

Can your dog read your mind?

Of course he can! You’ll probably swear to it after you’ve shaped a few behaviors, and you can tell your friends this is the case. But you’ll know the truth – that he’s offering you behaviors because he’s been reinforced repeatedly for those behaviors – and he even figured out what works (i.e., what you want. There you go, he can read your mind!).

I like to “shape behaviors” because this method is 100% hands-off and the dog gets to decide what to do – or so he thinks. This method empowers dogs to use their brains – and they do have brains – to figure out how to earn the reinforcement. It’s the most rewarding method I’ve used to train dogs, and I’m talking about rewarding to me, as well as to the dog!

To teach a dog a new behavior, a good trainer will divide the behavior into small “slices” – pieces of behavior that when put together form the final action we want the dog to perform.

For example, to sit in front of you, your dog must first lift his head up, shift weight back, slide his rear legs forward while dropping his haunches… In shaping a sit, each of those pieces would be clicked and treated multiple times. The more pieces a desired behavior is sliced into and each of those pieces reinforced, the more solidly the dog learns the final desired behavior.

Playing the following game with your dog will give you an idea of how the act of reinforcing small behaviors will lead to a dog happily learning things you never dreamed of! Continue reading

Clicker Basics

Three things to understand about using the clicker –

    1. You will click one time when your dog does a behavior you like.

Timing is everything! Pretend you’re taking a snapshot of the desired behavior. Click at exactly the instant that the behavior is happening. This means you should start the click when you see the dog’s muscles tense to sit or move. A touch early will probably mean you’re clicking on time. And what you’re really clicking is the dog’s decision or intent to move.

    1. Each click must be followed by a reward.

The reward can be a treat, or play, or a ride in the car (rather time consuming), a sniff at a tree… The goal is for the reward to be truly rewarding to the dog, not what you think should be rewarding to the dog.

    1. The click ends the behavior.

As soon as he hears the click, the dog is “allowed” to get up, or change otherwise out of the position you were clicking.

Charge!

To the dog, the click means the following:

  1. What he just did at the instant you clicked was what you will be rewarding him for.
  2. The click is always followed by a reward. Every time. 100%. The dog’s human must not fail!

To teach the dog these simple things, follow these steps:

  1. Put 10-15 small pieces of yummy food in one hand and a clicker in your other hand. Your dog is with you. You may attach the leash to a hook, stand on it – just secure it so the dog is safe and won’t wander away. Pretty soon he won’t even think of wandering away!
  2. Click once and give your dog a treat. Reach down and put the treat in his mouth. The dog does not have to do anything to earn the click or the treat; he just has to be there to eat it.
  3. Repeat.
  4. Repeat.
  5. Repeat until all treats are gone.

You’ll probably notice that at about click #5 or #6 the dog is looking at you sharply when he hears the click. This is good.

If the dog shows no interest in the food, he might be full from a meal, the food might not be yummy enough for him, he could be stressed by the environment, or he could be dead. You’d probably notice that. We can deal with these other issues.

You have just “charged the clicker,” i.e., “classically conditioned” the dog to anticipate a food reward when he hears a click. His association with the click is a good one. You will be using this conditioned response to teach him many things.

What next? See Shaping a Behavior

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