How to 'shape' your show dog into
a winner by using a 'conditioned reinforcer', without using physical
"Shaping" is a new technique
for turning show dogs into winners. My friend Barbara loves Great
Danes and enjoys showing her dogs but her new Great Dane, Heather,
was frustrating her. Barbara showed Heather in her first puppy class
at 8 months. When the judge leaned over to touch the dog, Heather
ran behind Barbara and wouldn't let the man near her. Heather disqualified
herself because of her seemingly poor temperament. She was terrified
of strangers. It looked as if Heather's show career was over before
it had begun.
Barbara approached me with this problem.
I'm a behavioral biologist, and an author of books and articles
on how to shape behavior with positive reinforcements. Shaping is
scientific slang for building a particular behavior by using a series
of small steps to achieve it. Shaping allows you to create behavior
from scratch without physical control or corrections, but rather
by drawing on your animal's natural ability to learn. Lately many
dog trainers have begun applying this technique - called operant
conditioning - to canine tasks and sports.
To shape behavior rapidly and effectively
you must use a distinct signal, such as a touch or a noise, that
marks the instant the right action occurs. After the signal the
animal is given something it likes, such as praise, petting, toys
Although praise and food conveys to
the animal that you're pleased, the marker signal is actually more
important because it tells the animal exactly what it was
doing that earned it the treat. That information makes it both possible
and likely the animal will do the right thing again. Dolphin trainers
use a whistle as their marker signal, or 'conditional reinforcer'.
Dog trainers seem to have settled on a toy clicker.
How could this help Barbara? Barbara,
Heather and I arranged to meet at a dog show, where Barbara had
brought Heather just to get her used to the many new sights and
sounds. Heather was certainly pretty, and the sights and sounds
didn't seem to bother her. She gazed around with the aplomb typical
of Danes - until I reached out to pet her. Then she shied like a
horse and backed away to the end of her lead.
I had no interest in why Heather behaved
this way; my aim was to see if we could get Heather to react in
a more appropriate manner.
We found a quite spot, beyond the crowds.
I bought some sausage at the hot dog stand on the show grounds (it's
always wise to start this process with something truly delicious).
Heather ate the sausage slices, but only if Barbara fed them to
her (she wouldn't take them from me). I gave Barbara a plastic clicker
and showed her how to begin the shaping procedure. Click, then treat.
Click, then treat. Teach the dog to expect the treat when it hears
the click. Then I had Barbara walk the dog around for a few minutes,
clicking whenever Heather appeared to relax.
Barbara took the clicker home. The
next day she took Heather to a nearby shopping center. Whenever
someone came down the sidewalk towards them, Barbara clicked, then
stopped Heather and gave her a treat. Soon Heather was walking calmly
toward approaching strangers.
Often, of course, peopled wanted to
pet Heather. On the third day Barbara began letting people touch
Heather on the back. Barbara clicked if Heather stood still. Heather
quickly learned to stand still on purpose. From her viewpoint, she
had Barbara all figured out: if Heather accepted petting, Barbara
clicked and gave a treat every time.
The next weekend Barbara took Heather
to the second show of her life. Heather trotted calmly beside Barbara
and stood politely while the judge looked at her teeth and felt
her legs. Heather won her class. Three weeks later, Heather won
a puppy class and beat several adult female Great Danes, earning
her first championship points.
A Pleasant Process
It seemed like a miracle. It wasn't.
The clicker 'explained' to Heather that she would be 'paid' for
letting herself be touched by strangers. She discovered for herself
that the process was harmless, even pleasant. The last time I saw
Heather (again, at a show) she had dived into a crowd of teenagers
and was reveling in being scratched and petted by six at once.
Becky's Standard Schnauzer, Dash, had
a different problem: She wouldn't keep her ears and tail up. Like
Heather, Dash was a very nice-looking bitch, and Becky felt she
had great potential; but a Schnauzer with its ears flat and its
tail tucked is not a impressive sign. Dash had long since lost interest
in squeaky toys; you couldnt fool her into pricking her hears.
Becky got a clicker and taught Dash
that click means treat. She then spent five minutes every evening
playing with Dash. Every time Dash's ears went up, Becky clicked.
A truck went by, the Schnauzer pricked her ears - click, treat.
Dash started pricking her ears on purpose.
Soon Becky could wait to click until Dash kept her ears up for two
seconds - then three, then five, then wile posed and while moving.
Before long, when Dash saw the clicker, her ears when up and stayed
Becky shaped Dash's tail carriage in
exactly the same way. At first, she gave Dash a click for any tail
movement, then for a tail horizontal to the ground, then for a tail
a little higher. Dash wagged her tail at first; later, she started
trying to lift it on purpose. They worked in five- or 10-minute
sessions, first at home, then in parks, then in busy places among
other dogs and people.
Becky also taught Dash to self-stack.
First she clicked for the back feet, until Dash always stopped with
her feet in the right place. Then Becky 'added' the front feet,
later the head position. Dash preferred stacking herself to being
pushed and pulled about. Dash learned to hold her pose like a model
- even while a judge felt her coat and opened her mouth. She quickly
learned she could rely on Becky to 'pay' her for the job. Now, six
months after the first click, Dash shines with pride and confidence.
Dash and Becky have won Best of Breed or Best of Opposite Sex at
all four shows they've been in.
Trying It Yourself
Although operant conditioning is different
from conventional training, it is not particularly difficult. In
fact, pet owners with no traditional dog training experience are
often better at it than seasoned professionals. Try it for yourself.
You don't need a clicker: Rattle the change in your pocket, clink
a spoon on a glass or cluck with your tongue to mark the instant
you see a behavior in your dog that you want to strengthen. (It's
best to save your voice for praise and affection; to dogs, a brief,
unusual sound is a much clearer behavior marker than a spoken word.)
Try to shape a simple task such as spin, roll over or shut the door.
Don't worry about how the dog 'feels'; concentrate on what behavior
you want to elicit from the dog. And remember to have fun! Shaping
is a great game. In my next column I'll talk about using shaping
to improve your dog's gait.