Easy Activity – Shaping Behaviors

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:

Step 1:

  • 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.

Step 2:

  • 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.

Step 3:

  • 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,”

Step 4:

  • 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.

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