Shaping behavior is also called “successive approximation.” It is moving a behavior in small (even tiny) increments getting closer and closer to the ultimate goal behavior.
The trainer communicates with the dog using a “mark”—which can be a click or other sound, or a word such as “yes” or “good.” The mark says “That behavior… what you just did, is worthy of reinforcement.” When the dog offers a behavior or semblance of a behavior in the direction of the goal—the trainer marks it and follows the mark with a reinforcer, generally a small treat.
Here’s an example using the behavior “settle” or go to a bed or mat. Here are some steps to shape it:
- Put the mat down. It’s likely that the dog will look at it, or even walk toward it. ‘Mark’ even a slight glance, and treat. Toss the treat near the dog
- Dog makes any movement—even glance—in the direction of the mat, ‘Mark’ and treat.
- Discontinue marking as in Step 1. Now you’re looking for movement closer to the mat.
- Mark small increments of the dog’s moving closer to the mat. After each mark, toss the treat away from the mat so the dog has to return toward the mat.
- Through successive approximations, shape your dog closer and closer.
- Discontinue marking just moving toward it. Wait for some interaction with the mat—a sniff, a slight touch, an accidental contact. ‘Mark’ and reinforce.
- Continue marking any touch, shaping the dog to have all 4 feet on the mat. ‘Mark’ and toss the treat off the mat so the dog returns to it.
- Every once in a while, ‘mark’ the dog on the mat, then ‘mark’ for staying on the mat and toss the treat off.
- This helps the dog figure out that ‘going to’ and ‘being on’ the mat are “treat worthy,”
- Next is focusing on having the dog lie down on the mat. Dog is on the mat, ‘mark’ and reinforce in place. Then wait.
- Wait … It’s likely that your dog will offer a movement toward lying down. S/he may even lie down. ‘Mark’ & reward. If your dog doesn’t lie down, here are ways to shape it.
- ‘Mark’ & reward head lowering
- ‘Mark’ & reward sit
- ‘Mark’ & reward any posture change, especially one that is downward.
Watch the video of Kochi being shaped to “pray.” Notice how, in just 2 minutes, he went from having no idea what the behavior was to offering it many times in a row.
Gail’s book, The Thinking Dog, has clear explanations and instructions for shaping many behaviors. It is available at All Dogs Gym and on-line.
This was originally published as “All Dogs Alchemy”: Ideas to help get through the Covid quarantine.