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Shaping Exercises for Your Dog (and You)

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Shaping button pressing

Please allow me a healthy amount of geekiness for a moment. “Shaping by successive approximations involves a process of differentially rewarding some behaviors and not others.”

I introduced the Sophia Yin “box” exercise to my basic obedience students last session.  Take a look at this great video demonstration of operant conditioning.  In my basic obedience class we use luring with treats to get the dogs to do behaviors like sit.  Using treats that dogs follow closely with their noses, makes it easy to achieve results FOR SIMPLE EXERCISES.  Complex behaviors are not always well suited for luring, so my students found this frustrating and challenging.

My students were immediately challenged by having to be quiet.  Other than saying yes every time the dog successfully met a criteria, the human should not be giving cues.  For advanced behaviors, successful completion of the behavior is not usually immediate.  So if the handler says down, but the dog takes a few minutes to put his belly on the floor, the dog may not associate the word with the behavior.  For advanced behaviors, I try to get students to successfully shape the behavior and add the cue later.

My students were also frustrated by the slow process.  When shaping begins, the dog is often perplexed by what is expected.  After all he has been led around by a treat on the nose for weeks.  This process is new.  These exercises give dogs great problem solving skills and confidence.  Once you have shaped a few tricks with your dogs, he will catch on.  Next time the treat bag comes out, he will confidently offer new behaviors and explore novel items you bring to the session (like a box).

If you watch the video, you’ll notice that Dr. Yin keeps raising the criteria for which Zoey. The dog gets rewarded as she gets closer to the final desired result.  You’ll also notice that Zoey gets a little lost in the exercise after a few tries.  Dr. Yin lowers the criteria to keep Zoey engaged.  Then Zoey quickly gets back on track.

The frustrating part of this video is that I suspect Zoey has already done some shaping exercises before.  Most students and dogs that are new to this will take much longer to achieve the result than Dr. Yin and Zoey.

Shaping exercises are great fun for dogs because it allows them a stress free experience of problem solving.  The experience is free of humans  hovering over them and barking out cues repeatedly (why would anyone listen to my “say it once” advice?).   This exercise is great for handlers too.  No more repeating cues until the dog learns the cue is irrelevant.  In addition, my human students gain some much needed patience.

Dogs wow me every day with their amazing ability to work things out.  I encourage all of you to try some shaping exercises with your dogs so they can wow you.  Try Dr. Yin’s box exercise this month and let me know how it goes.

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