how to start shaping

Welcome to another episode of Agility tips & tricks.

One of the first things I get my students to do, and one of the staple elements of my Foundations class is shaping. This is, using the clicker to mark an action of the dog in order to build a behaviour. To do this, we ‘shape’ approximate steps toward the final product and reward those steps and jackpot the steps which are closest to what we’re looking for.

Sometimes starting this with a dog who isn’t familiar with clicker-training can be a little frustrating because you don’t see anything ‘happening’. Sometimes starting this with an owner who isn’t familiar with clicker-training can be interesting because they feel they have to show or tell the dog what to do all the time, rather than letting the dog work it out. What we want in shaping is for our dogs to give us a bunch of different behaviours, without a cue or a prompt, and for us to say, “YES! That was what I was looking for!” (which is what the click does), or, for us to say nothing much at all if we need to wait for what we want.

When we start shaping, we want our dogs to feel like anything they do is awesome and that they are the smartest dog in the world. I’ve found that the best way to begin shaping is with an object or even a few objects on the ground. You can shape without any props but I think it’s easiest to start with something them for interact with.

I usually sit on the floor with my dogs for my shaping session. It helps shift their focus to lower which is usually where the objects are. Obviously if I want them to stand on my feet or jump on me, or on the couch or something, I’ll change my body position. One of the best objects to start with is a simple cardboard box.You’ll need this, your clicker, and a bowl of food.

Sit on the floor, have the bowl of food behind or beside you (if your dog wants to mug the bowl, we can work on this later, but usually the ‘game’ is much more fun, and they love working for their food.), have your clicker in hand, and get your dog in front of you. Drop the box on the floor in front of you. Usually this will cause the dog to look at the box so BE READY! When the dog looks at the box, click and reward (C&R). Sometimes it helps to drop the food in the box at this early stage. Then wait. If the dog glances at the box, sniffs the box, moves toward the box, C&R. If the dog does anything purposeful in regards to the box (sticks their face or feet in, nudges it with their nose), have a huge reward party. Continue like this. If you continually click the one behaviour (eg. glancing at the box), then this is the only behaviour you will get. So, sometimes you need to wait. If your dog is glancing at the box, start waiting him out, he’ll probably glance, glance, glance, glance… pause and look at you quizzically, and then hopefully, lower his head to the box, or step toward the box. Have a big party for this new behaviour.

Eventually you want your dog to start trying lots of things. It’s  fantastic game for rainy days – 101 things with a box. With this game, you shape as above but you only C&R the same behaviour 3 times. Dogs have to get super creative, be resilient to ‘failure’, solve problems, use their whole bodies, and it’s a huge mental workout.

Here’s a nice Aussie playing 101 things with a box:

So how does this all help with agility? Let me count the ways!

  1. Teaches problem solving. When we say “oops, not quite right”, or don’t reward our dog in agility, we don’t want them to shut down because it’s too hard. We want them to go: “No worries, I’ll try something different!!”
  2. Teaches them about their bodies – feet, legs, noses, back-legs, front legs, twisting, curling in half, mouths… Agility dogs need to know how they move in space (I think this is called Proprioception) and how to use their bodies in small and intricate ways.
  3. Teaches creativity (similar to point 1). We want them to have 50 ways to solve a problem, not just 1 and for that to be “give up” or “wait for further instructions”.
  4. Teaches independence & confidence- Your dog doesn’t have to wait for you to tell it what to do, it can make its own decisions in order to get rewards, and this makes those behaviours even stronger.
  5. Builds the bond with you – I know, this seems weird since you’re not telling your dog what to do but trust me on this one. The time spent doing this with your dog is awesome. You’re celebrating his cleverness and his problem-solving, you’re a cheer-leader and a treat-dispenser, and a play-mate. You’re letting your dog use his mind and his brain and giving him a job. Once you let go of telling your dog what to do and start letting him just do stuff you’ll see that he’s so capable.
  6. Makes your dog better able to interact with ‘stuff’ (read: agility stuff). If your dog can slam a cupboard door, it can slam down a see-saw. If your dog can put its feet in a box, it can get control of its feet to hit a contact. If your dog can wrap a bollard, it can wrap a wing jump. If your dog recognises when a jackpot is a jackpot and when a non-reward is a non-reward, it will learn stuff heaps quicker.

Finally, if you’ve read all this and you’re like me and a visual learner, do a quick youtube search for “puppy free shaping” and you’ll see plenty of videos of people shaping their dogs to do something using this method.

Next episode, I’ll discuss some tricks that are really useful for agility, and how you can go from “clicking any random thing” to “building the behaviour you want.”

If you found this helpful (or not helpful!) or have an idea for a new post, comment below! I’d love to hear from you.

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