SHAPING A BEHAVIOR|
Shaping means exactly what it sounds like -- instead of expecting the dog to immediately grasp the entire behavior you're looking for, you start with an approximation of that behavior and "shape" it to look like what you want. It goes hand-in-hand with breaking a behavior down into small steps. For example, if you want your dog to pick up a ball from the floor, you'd first think about the various steps involved. Looking at the ball, moving his head toward the ball, putting his mouth on the ball, picking up the ball. You don't necessarily have to train each of those little pieces separately, but you should be aware that the steps exist -- it's not just a single fluid movement from the dog's perspective, at least not when he's first learning.
Sticking with the ball example: Now you know there are several steps to even simple behaviors. How do you shape the overall effect? Let's say you put the ball down and your dog leans over and sniffs it. YES! Click, or use your word marker, and then offer the reward. Your dog will probably look at you for a while to see if more treats will be forthcoming. If he goes back to the ball, even accidentally ... YES! Reward that behavior. Some dogs will catch on faster than others, but it shouldn't take long for your dog to realize that interacting with the ball results in good things happening. If he actually mouths or even picks up the ball, or takes any kind of "big step" (even if it's by accident) ... JACKPOT! Use your clicker or reward marker and give him a small handful of treats. Your dog will be astonished by his good fortune, and you can bet he'll show real interest in that ball. Every so often, raise your criteria -- if he's consistently mouthing the ball, wait until you see it lift a centimeter off the floor before clicking and rewarding. All of that might happen in one 10-minute session, or it might take several sessions over the course of a few days. Remember to lower your criteria again when you first come back to an activity -- give your dog a chance to warm up and remember what he learned last time.
Keep the sessions short and fun, and don't be stingy with the treats -- a common beginner habit is to slowly dole out large pieces of treats, holding out for bigger and better behaviors. You'll see much better progress if you use many, many *tiny* treats. Note that many dogs will happily work for Cheerios, but if yours isn't particularly food-driven, then you may have to up the ante. Try cooked, shredded chicken, liver or slivers of cheese.
Now let's say your dog is actually picking up the ball, but then immediately drops it. How do you "shape" him to hold onto it for a few seconds? This is where the precision of the clicker can come in handy. As soon as the dog picks up the ball, mentally start counting. If you only get to 1 second, that's OK, CLICK and reward! Repeat a few times, and then up your ante: Hold out for 2 seconds. Then four seconds. As you build up, remember to occasionally drop back -- you don't want to keep raising the stakes so quickly that the dog gets frustrated or loses interest. This is called variable reinforcement -- you might click and reward at 3 seconds, then 5 seconds, then 4 seconds, then 5 seconds, etc. It's surprisingly effective, and it's that easy!