I don’t think I have ever met a trainer with better shaping skills than Jane Killion. At times, it seemed like it’s the only tool she uses (and I’ll talk more about that in my posts on her approach to reactivity, aggression, and attention), but I’ve got to admit that if I was even half as good at shaping as she is, I might not feel the need to use other approaches. Honestly, her skills are just phenomenal.
So, what is shaping? Shaping is the process of teaching a dog a new behavior in small, incremental steps. Instead of trying to teach the entire behavior all at once, shaping builds it up, one piece at a time. Jane used the analogy of a movie: if the behavior is what you would see in the final video clip, then shaping is the process of teaching that behavior one frame at a time.
More specifically, Jane does something called free shaping, which is where the dog offers each successive behavior as opposed to the trainer prompting, luring, compelling, or showing the dog what to do. Jane makes this distinction because she wants the dog to be the active participant. Since a “Pigs Fly” dog tends to be an independent thinker, free shaping harnesses the dog’s natural ability.
It also creates a dog who is “obsessed” with solving problems. Jane believes that free shaping taps into the SEEKING circuit in the brain, and since we know that anticipation is reinforcing, this means that the dog who has learned via shaping will find solving training challenges to be inherently reinforcing. This makes shaping a valuable tool for the “Pigs Fly” dog who isn’t all that interested in pleasing his person.
If this sounds wonderful, it’s because it is. But there is a catch! For free shaping to work, the dog has to be operant. This means that the dog understands that his behavior will earn a click and treat, and even more importantly, that he actively offers behaviors in order to earn the reward.
Jane teaches a dog how to be operant by playing The Box Game. To play, set a box on the floor and click/treat any interaction with the box that your dog offers. Any interaction. You aren’t teaching a behavior, so you should click anything and everything your dog does with, near, or to the box. Dog looks at the box? Click Dog sniffs at it? Click. Dog paws it? Click. Dog steps in it? Click. Dog jumps over it? Click. And if your dog will have nothing to do with the box? Click him for looking away from it, or even for getting up and walking away. That may sound weird, but remember, the goal is not teaching a behavior, it’s to teach the dog the concept of offering behaviors.
Once your dog is eagerly offering behaviors, it’s time to start shaping a behavior. Jane had working participants shape a behavior related to the box. This allowed the handlers (and the dogs!) to practice their new-found skills with something that doesn’t really matter. Choosing a "silly" behavior is important, because when people start with behaviors they care about, they tend to get tense and worried, which interferes with their ability to train.
To shape a behavior, start by thinking about what you want to teach. Jane said that the key to training lies in setting up your sessions well. You should spend more time planning than training. Have a very clear picture of what you want, and be sure to state it in terms of what the dog will do, not what he won’t do. For example, a sit-stay is defined as “sitting and holding that position” as opposed to “sitting and not changing position.”
Next, figure out what each step will be. Again, think of the final behavior as a movie, and visualize each frame. The change between each step should be very small. For example, if the behavior is teaching your dog to go lie on his bed, you might say that the first step is for the dog to turn his head towards the bed. Jane, however, would say the first step is for the neck muscles to move, or for the dog's eyes to flick in the direction of the bed. Like I said: tiny steps.
Click/treat that first step repeatedly until it is clear that the dog is deliberately offering the behavior. The amount of time you spend on this step will depend on the dog; if he’s done a lot of shaping, you might only need to click each step two or three times, but if this is his first time out, you might need to click it a hundred times.
Now, stop clicking. If your dog understood that his behavior was resulting in reinforcement, he will probably be a little confused. He will likely try the behavior again a few times. When that doesn't produce a click, he will start to offer variations on the behavior, trying to figure out what it is you want. Pick one that takes you closer to your end goal and click/treat that. Technically, your dog is going through an extinction burst, so be quick, before the dog gives up entirely. While much of training is a science, there is definitely an art to determining when to stop clicking, and what to click after that.
A lot of the working dogs were already operant, having had experience with shaping. In fact, some of them were almost frantic in their efforts to offer clickable behaviors. Jane acknowledged that shaping can be messy and chaotic at times. This is often hard for people to accept, especially if they are used to dogs who wait to be told what to do, or who really want to control their dogs.
That said, there are problems unique to shaping, although they are almost always due to timing. (Of course, poor timing is a problem no matter how you train, it’s just that poor clicker timing results in a different set of problems than in a poorly timed collar correction.) Almost every clicker problem can be solved simply by clicking earlier. Barking out of frustration during training is usually a very smart, fast dog saying “I did it! Click me already!” Dogs who throw lots of behaviors usually are not sure what the trainer wants because of her poor timing. And superstitious behaviors- those things that the dog thinks is part of the behavior but really isn’t- usually creep in due to late timing.
Timing and splitting behaviors down into tiny pieces seem to go hand in hand. For example, when Jane was working on teaching a dog to jump, she started with clicking the dog for seeing/committing to the jump versus going over it. Not only does slicing the criteria like this make it easier to shape the dog, but it also means that if your click is even a half-second late, you’re probably still clicking the goal behavior- in this case, jumping- instead of the behavior after it, like landing.
It was pretty amazing to watch Jane work with the dogs because her timing was just so good, and the lesson of clicking early was definitely something I needed. My timing is pretty good, but it is nowhere near Jane’s level of pure awesomeness. I am going to work hard to click sooner and to break down behaviors into smaller pieces. I think both things will really benefit my ability to teach the behaviors I want.
Coming up soon: using shaping to create an attentive dog and solve behavior challenges.