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