I am a big fan of shaping behaviors when I train my dogs. I wasn’t always a fan, partly because I thought I’d have to wait forever for the dog to offer me a behavior that I could click and treat. Because I’m the sort of person who likes quick results, I thought shaping just wouldn’t work. Shaping is a process where an animal is rewarded for performing small, incremental steps that he’ll build on to produce a complete behavior.
Instead of shaping, I used luring to train my two adult GSDs. I was new to clicker training at the time, and obviously didn’t appreciate the merits of shaping. I lured the dogs by holding food in my hand to get them to perform a behavior, like a sit or a down. It worked because the dogs learned quickly. I was very fortunate, though, that my two dogs didn’t fall into the trap that most dogs fall into: they rely on the food in the trainer’s hand as their cue. Once the food isn’t present, the behavior is no longer forth-coming.
Both of my puppies, Gretchen and Tuvok, learned their sits through shaping, and both have fast, reliable sits. The downs have proven to be a bit more challenging, partly because I have been inconsistent with their training.
When shaping does not “work”
Gretchen’s down is now on cue, but she still needs a lot more practice before I’d consider this behavior “fluent on cue.” Tuvok, however, is a bit slower at offering the down. I would click and toss his treats when he offered a down, and he’d get up for the treat. I’d then expect him to go back into a down so that I could repeat the process. I found that he would be slow at settling back into the down. He had to sniff around first, then go check out something at the other side of the room, then he’d sit and look at me before sliding into a down.
In an effort to teach this behavior quickly, I started putting the behavior on cue. Did I mention that I love quick results? What should have been a five-minute session easily turned into 15 minutes as I waited for the boy to resettle. Then I had an epiphany one evening when I took Tuvok to a quiet spot in the parking lot of a shopping center to train. He gave me sits on cue, but was not offering me downs, whether on or off cue. He may have been overstimulated with the new environment. At any rate, the cue “down” meant absolutely nothing to him. I suspected that he hadn’t really learned the down properly, and I realized that I needed to back up a few steps.
Luring with a twist
Instead of shaping this time, I decided to lure, because I suspected that would help him with his concentration issues. I also needed Tuvok to learn this behavior very quickly. I did mention that I like quick results.
I lured with food for about three repetitions with Tuvok, but I did something different this time: I lured him with the food in my right hand, but once he was in the down, I offered the treat with my left hand. The idea was that lure would not become a bribe. After three repetitions, I gave the lure with my right hand without the food, clicked and treated with my left hand.
Within minutes he was offering me fast, focused downs, and the luring hand now became a hand signal for the down, which is something that he’ll need for obedience trials later.
No two organisms learn in the same way
As an educator I’m aware that no two organisms learn in exactly the same way. I was proof of that growing up, and I’m very aware of that as I teach adults and kids. I have found that it is no different in the dog training world. My puppies are the same age as they came out of a recent litter that I bred. Both are clicker trained, but their personalities are so different and their learning styles are different from each other and different from my other dogs.
People often ask me which of the two puppies is smarter, and that’s a hard question to answer. They are different, but that doesn’t make one dog smarter than the other. Tuvok learned the down in one session with the lure. That was the faster method for him. Gretchen never responded to the lure. Whenever I tried luring, she would lock her legs in a stand while contorting her neck to pry that treat out of my hand. She was the better candidate for shaping.
The merits of shaping and luring
Shaping and luring both have a place in the animal trainer’s toolkit. I still believe that shaping behaviors are the most effect way to teach. Had I re-shaped the downs with Tuvok and continued to train him in a less interesting environment, he probably would have learned the behavior with that method. Shaping puts the animal in control because they quickly learn that when they offer a behavior, they are rewarded for it, and they will most likely repeat that behavior. The behavior then becomes a strong one that doesn’t go away very quickly. That is, the dog is not apt to “forget” how to perform the behavior.
In Tuvok’s case luring helped him to stay focused on the task at hand. He didn’t have time to go off to explore his environment, because he had a clear idea of what it was that I wanted. It took the guessing game out of the training sessions where I waited for the down, and he sat there wondering if the clicker was broken. As I continue training dogs, both shaping and luring will have its place in my repertoire of training techniques.