The Shape of Modern Dog Training

Eager PupOne of the most effective training techniques to come to modern dog training over the past 20 years or so has been Mark and Reward training (Clicker Training is a form of Mark and Reward training).  It’s a process of training that creates a marker signal that lets the dog know that the behaviour they just performed was the right one and that you are going to give them a reward.  The main distinction of this kind of training is the use of the unique marker signal that is first taught to the dog.  It is a way to communicate “That’s right!  That’s what I was looking for.”

It’s an interesting technique for more than one reason.  Initially the dog is taught that the marker signal means that a reward has been earned.  Most dogs, once they learn this, quickly realize that it can be great fun to try to get their trainer to use the marker.  Once they offer one or two behaviours that reliably produce the marker and the reward, they seem eager to keep trying. Training becomes a two-way game of the trainer trying to get the dog to produce a particular behaviour and the dog trying to offer the right behaviour in order to get the marker and the reward.

Getting good marks

The main challenge in using Mark and Reward training is that I have to have a clear idea of the behaviour I want to mark and then somehow I have to get my dog to do that behaviour.  The whole process depends on my dog doing the behaviour I want so I can mark it and reward her.  This is where Mark and Reward training gets interesting.  There are basically two ways use this kind of training with my dog.  I can wait my dog just happens to perform the behaviour I want or I can find a way to get her to do the behaviour I want.

Waiting for my dog to offer me the behaviour I’m looking for is called “shaping.”  It’s called shaping because I have to start by marking some small behaviour that may only be a small part of the whole behaviour I’m looking for.  For example: if I am trying to train my dog to sit, I could begin shaping by marking and rewarding any m0vement in her back end.  By carefully marking greater and greater movement of my dog’s backside toward the floor, she will eventually offer me the behaviour of putting her backside on the floor.

Another approach would be to somehow get my dog to do the whole “sit” behaviour before ever marking anything.  I might do that by dangling a bit of food back over her head so that when she looks up, she naturally sits.  I could also push gently on her bottom and mark if she puts her backside on the floor.  Or I could wait until a time in the day that I have noticed that she usually sits on her own and be ready to mark and reward the “sit” at that time.  All of these approaches will attempt to mark the whole behaviour, rather than a smaller part of it as in shaping.

Shaping up

Those who enjoy “shaping” behaviours with Mark and Reward training often cite one important advantage of this kind of training.  It very quickly teaches the dog to offer a variety of behaviours. An important part of shaping is that you do not punish the dog for incorrect responses.  The dog is allowed to continue to offer variations of behaviour until they discover what gets the reward.  And with no fear of being wrong, they can develop a wonderfully creative approach to training.

ShapingThe down side of shaping is that it can take time.  It can take several iterations until you put the whole behaviour together but if you are marking and rewarding frequently, you have an enthusiastic training partner.  Another potential pitfall is if you do not appropriately prepare your dog for shaping.  Remember, you are literally waiting for the dog to do something you can mark and if that takes too long, the dog can get bored or frustrated and just give up.  It’s also important to be a good trainer if you are going to use shaping.  You will get the best results if you mark and reward behaviours frequently enough to keep your dog eager to play the training game and still be able to ask for a little bit more so you can move toward your goal behaviour.

Prompts and Lures

In the words of author and animal trainer Karen Pryor, in order to mark a behaviour, you must have a behaviour to mark.  There are any number of ways to get a dog to do a behaviour that we want to mark.  Anything we do to try to get our dog to do a particular behaviour is a “prompt.”  We are prompting them to do something so we can mark and reward it.  Prompts come in various forms.  Holding a piece of food out for a do so that they will move toward it is a form of prompt called “luring.”  Pointing or indicating something is another form of prompting.  Placing objects in the immediate area so the dog must avoid running into them is another form of prompting.

Regardless of what you introduce to your training to prompt your dog to give you a behaviour that you can mark and reward, that prompt will need to be removed at some point.  This is so that the dog knows that it is the behaviour they are doing, and not the prompt itself, that is getting the mark and reward.  And this is the tricky side of prompting.

The more elaborate the prompting you introduce to get the behaviour, the more complicated it will be to remove it from the training so only the goal behaviour remains.  The trap that trainers that use prompts fall into most often is that their prompts are seen by the dog as a necessary part of the behaviour.  If we use a piece of food to get our dog to spin in a circle without fading that prompt out of the picture, the dog may think that they are ONLY supposed to spin in the presence of the food.  Clever trainers will often use prompts that look very much like what they would like the hand signal for the behaviour to be so that as they fade the prompt, it simply turns into cue for that behaviour.

Stress or success?

So which approach to training makes the most sense to dogs – shaping or prompting?  Well, I think that depends on what you teach your dog to expect.  A dog who is largely raised with prompting may become confused and frustrated when you attempt to “shape” a behaviour with them.  That is because they expect some indicator to get them started.  On the other hand, a dog who is used to being “shaped” is likely to begin offering behaviours without waiting for any prompting and if you attempt to stop them, they may perceive this as aversive and stop trying.

PromptWhat we teach our dogs to expect from us as trainers has a tremendous impact on how successful a particular method of training will be for us.  If I have raised my dog primarily as a prompted learner, I have an obligation to approach training armed with the information my dog will be expecting.  And if I have raised my dog primarily as a shaped learner, I need to come with the appropriate patience and planning to move smoothly as I mark and reward variations on offered behaviours until we get to our goal.

Both prompting and shaping can be used to achieve great results in teaching our dogs.  Proponents of one method or another may have their reasons to prefer one over the other but the truth is that it will depend heavily on what our dogs expect during training.  Managing my dog’s expectations means I am also managing her stress and comfort levels during training.  I have learned from my experience that a less stressed and less frustrated dog just learns better.

And that has taught me to think things through before I begin training and come prepared to be a good teacher!

Until next time, have fun with your dogs!

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Photo credits –

Eager Pup – Jose Rodriguez  copyright 2008 from Flickr
Shaping- niXerKG copyright 2012 from Flickr
Prompt – Sandra Carmen Maschke copyright 2009 from Flickr


Recent Eric Brad CPDT-KA Articles:

  • The Dog That Changed My Life
  • Keeping Your Dog Informed
  • Teaching Your Dog to Not-Behave
  • The Simple Complexity of Dog Training
  • What The Dog Wants

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