Free Shaping in Training Dogs

What is Shaping?
'Shaping' is creating a behavior by reinforcing an animal for incremental steps which eventually 'shape' into the end goal. While it doesn't sound so hard, the catch is this: the entire premise of the method is based on the initiative of the animal; not the trainer. In other words, it's a patience game since you're waiting for the spontaneous actions of the dog.

Timing and consistency are critical in any type of training, but when using free shaping, the trainer's timing needs to be impeccable, since the full extent of the desired behavior probably won't happen right away. More than likely it needs to be built upon in small increments. In fact, you might have to start at a very basic level.

For example, let's say you want to teach your dog to bow. You might be waiting a LONG time before the dog offers that exact behavior, so instead you might have to start by reinforcing the dog when she merely looks at the ground. *click* Once the dog's consistently looking at the ground, you don't pay on the next occurrence. If it's truly a consistent behavior, the dog will go through an extinction burst - she'll try harder at the behavior because it's paid in the past - and might dip her head lower to the ground instead of merely looking down. *click* Once that's consistent, you stop paying and the dog will try harder. Then maybe the dog dips a shoulder - *click* and so on.

Many trainers don't have the patience for true free shaping, but it's a fun way for your dog to be not only learning but initiating new behaviors. Another great way to teach a dog to be more creative – thus offering a trainer more behaviors – is to play the 101 Things To Do With a Box game.

Now, some trainers might understand shaping is a powerful training tool but don't have the patience or length of time to wait for the dog to offer spontaneous behaviors. In many cases, trainers will resort to using a lure to get the dog to perform the behavior instead. While you can certainly train a dog this way, luring isn't free shaping, rather, just 'shaping.' What happens with luring is the dog relies on the lure to 'tell' him what to do. If you decide to use luring when training new behaviors, it's important to properly phase out the lure so the dog learns not to depend on help all the time to perform the behavior. This type of training can definitely work, but free shaping creates a much more creative dog who will try things on his own, versus having to always be lured into new behaviors.

Why Use a Clicker in Free Shaping?
Clicker training is basically a junk term for marker-based training. Marking a behavior with a sound is an extremely effective method of teaching new behaviors because the subject - be it dog, dolphin, rat, human - knows the exact moment when he performs a desired behavior. Also, by introducing a (previously) neutral sound into the training process the subject learns to work for the SOUND; not the reward. This is important, since a common complaint of dog owners is, "my dog only does tricks when I have a bunch of treats in my hand!" These people don't understand clicker training or the principles behind operant conditioning.

If a marker sound isn't utilized in free shaping, the dog won't learn very quickly. Why? Because he won't know if the desired behavior occurred when the trainer gave the treat, just before the treat was thrown, etc. With a clear, short marker at the instant the behavior is offered, the dog will understand instantly what he did correctly. Of course, before starting to free shape, the trainer must be sure the dog understands the clicker's meaning. This can be done by charging the clicker before beginning training.

Why can't I just use a short word instead of a clicker?
Often trainers will resort to a short, upbeat word – such as "Yes!" or "Good!" – instead of a clicker. This can work when free shaping, but it's best to use a clicker, since it's a consistent sound; there is no voice inflection, no volume change. That being said, it's great to have a dog accustomed to the sounds of both the clicker and the trainer's voice, since there will be times when you've forgotten your clicker or weren't planning on a training session. However, studies have shown there is a much quicker learning time when using a clicker vs. a voice as a marker.

With some practice, patience and good timing, you can teach your dog anything with free shaping – including teaching a dog fun tricks. After all, how else do zoo trainers achieve desired behaviors with elephants, birds, dolphins, etc?


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