a chihuahua looking attentively at the clicker

Have you ever tried to teach your dog to sit using a treat? You put a tasty treat near your dog’s nose and over your dog’s head, trying to guide their nose back. When the dog sees the treat going over their head, they will often tip their head back to follow the treat and sit at the same time. Sometimes they don’t though.

If your dog has come up with a thousand ways to access the treat but none of those are sitting on his bottom, it can be pretty frustrating. How do you get him to do the behavior if he never offers it? When this happens, shaping is an alternative method that can help you train your pet to do just about anything.

What is Shaping?

Shaping is a training technique that has you reward tiny portions of a complete task. If your dog refuses to come when called for example, you can use shaping to get that behavior. You might start by clicking and rewarding your pet for leaning toward you.

When your pet leans toward you frequently, you would make the requirements for getting a click a little bit harder, but still winnable. Perhaps a single step toward you.

As your pet consistently offers that single step, you can get pickier about what you reward, requiring two steps, and then three steps, until eventually the dog has to come all the way to be rewarded.

Why Shaping is Beneficial

Shaping can be a good technique when the pet can’t otherwise be lured or captured. While this is its major benefit, it also has two others.

A command that is learned in small steps is often stronger than a command taught all at once. If the dog learned to come when called one step at a time, they have a whole history of approaching you they have been rewarded for.

When dogs are exposed to a distracting environment, they often regress in their training. If the pet has learned “Come” as “Come all the way to me” during training, regressing could mean not coming at all. If the dog regresses after learning through shaping, it could mean they regress by only a step or two.

The difference could mean watching your dog disappear over the horizon, and only having to lean forward a bit to scoop him up.

One final benefit to shaping is it teaches your dog to try new things when the first try isn’t successfully rewarded. This is called having an operant dog. An operant dog will offer new behaviors when something they were rewarded for in the past is no longer rewarded.

Dogs that are not operant will simply become frustrated and confused when something isn’t rewarded. These are the dogs who often have to be lead through luring or other techniques to get them to perform a new task. It is much easier and faster to work with an operant dog.

How Shaping Works

Dog behavior (and actually, all animal behavior) is variable. Imagine going to get yourself a cup of coffee from your machine. You don’t always do it in exactly the same way. Sometimes you grab a brown cup, sometimes you grab the cup with the bird on it. Sometimes you stir your cream into your coffee 3 times, sometimes 4 times.

Although you may get your coffee every day, you probably don’t do everything exactly the same way, every single time you grab a cup. Those small changes are called variables.

Your dog is also not a robot, and has these changes in behavior, even during training. Even with an already trained behavior, he might run to you quickly one time, or a little slower the next time. Small variables in behavior are always present, in every living thing.

Shaping capitalizes on these variables. By rewarding anything that is closer to the end goal, you can get your dog to do almost anything. Shaping also works to improve already established behaviors. You can get faster recalls by timing how long it takes your dog to respond and then rewarding only the faster times.

You’ve Probably Already Shaped Your Dog

You may not be aware of this, but you may already have shaped your pet’s behavior. Have you ever been trying to eat your dinner when your dog suddenly appears. He tilts his head, raises his eyebrows, and perhaps lifts a paw.

It’s heart meltingly cute, so you share a bite of your meal with him. Other times the behavior didn’t look quite so cute, so maybe you ignored him.

Your pet learned over time exactly what poses you find the cutest and uses them because they’re most likely to get him that snack. Congratulations! You’ve shaped your dog!

Shaping in training is simply doing that same thing, but on purpose. The next time you’re trying to teach your pet something that doesn’t come naturally (like putting on a collar for example) you can try shaping to get them to not only do the assigned task, but comfortably and fear free.

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By Andrea

Andrea is a dedicated dog mom of three chihuahuas. She has over a decade of experience as a dog groomer, chihuahua owner, and more recently as a dog trainer. She loves all things canine, particularly chihuahuas.

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