How to 'shape' your show dog into a winner by using a 'conditioned reinforcer', without using physical corrections.
"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 or food.
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 'conditioned 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 quiet 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
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
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 sight. Dash had long since lost interest in squeaky toys; you couldn't
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,
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 there.
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.
[ Part I ] [ Part 2 ] [ Part 3 ] [ Part
For more information about clicker training
your dogs, whether for show or obedience, go to ... www.karenpryor.com