More about Shaping and Clicker training

It is common to use a clicker when Shaping. With shaping your dog needs a clear indicator to be confident that the behaviour it is offering is what was expected.  The indicator also indicates that a reward is coming, this will help build your dog’s grit and focus.

The clicker, is what is commonly used as a marker; it is a highly effective way to communicate information to your dog for the following reasons:

  • The clicker has a sharp, consistent, and neutral sound
  • The clicker provides clear and consistent information that the dog has given the correct behaviour and therefore is right. As handlers if we use verbal commands, we tend to switch words or voice intonation
  • The clicker provides information that a reward is coming. Remember that the reward should be small and healthy.

Shaping requires skills that you will develop over time. However, remember that if you want to progress your dog should enjoy learning. The training session should be fun and not too difficult, it is all about playing games. With shaping each step toward the final behaviour should be entertaining and relatively easy.

The exercise should be easy enough that the reward comes quickly to keep your dog entertained and focused. If not, your dog may lose its confidence or become distracted, bored, or frustrated and will either give up or just offer a random set of behaviours. This also means that you need to adapt the difficulty of the exercise and the criteria to your dog’s focus and understanding of the exercise.

What if you do not have or do not like the clicker, how do you train?

Firstly, I would advise you to try and persevere with using a clicker; with time you may start to like it. However, if you really cannot or do not like it, it is not the end of the world. There are other options but from experience a clicker is often best.

If you do not want to use the clicker or do not have the clicker available at least use the verbal command “Yes”.

  • Yes, is short
  • Yes, is consistent
  • Yes, is handy when you do not have the clicker with you

I use Yes whilst I click during most of my training sessions so that when I do not have my clicker to hand or when I phase out the clicker, my dogs understand the Yes command as well.

Try to keep a consistent tone with your Yes command as your dog may interpret a low pitch or high pitch Yes command differently; this cannot happen with a clicker as the click is a consistent sound.

Using “Good boy/girl” or “Clever Boy/Girl” is a no go to mark a behaviour simply because we use it in too many other situations. The expression is therefore not a consistent marker. As it is difficult to get away from the “Good boy” expression (we keep on forgetting), I would advise you to say Yes first at the same time as the behaviour and then add “Good boy/girl”.

The three most common techniques to train a dog

There are various ways to teach a dog a game or a behaviour. The most common ones are Luring, Shaping, and Capturing. During a training session, I will mix the 3 techniques depending on what I want to achieve and what is required to keep the sessions entertaining for my dog.

For the Tricks for Treats School, some games and tricks are easier trained with Luring and others with Shaping. For some, you will probably require a mix a bit of both

Luring

Luring is the easiest technique to train a dog and it is probably the easiest one for beginner handlers. With Luring you can achieve results quite quickly, so it is rewarding for the handler and there is little pressure placed on the dog.

Luring is simply using a piece of food in your hand to guide your dog through the desired behaviour. Your dog, attracted by the food, will follow your hand.

The most common lure used in training is food, but you can also use a toy or anything else you would like so long as your dog will focus and follow your guidance for a long enough period.

Luring can greatly aid the learning experience of your dog and reduce the risk of frustration for both of you as the technique requires minimal problem solving on your dog’s part.

The difficulty with luring arises when it is time to fade the lure as dogs quickly become dependent on the lure to perform the behaviour. Expecting a dog to suddenly perform the behaviour just on a verbal cue is a huge step.

How can you fade the lure?

It is best to start fading the lure as soon as possible during the learning process. There are different techniques to fade the lure:

  • Making the lure less and less accessible and rewarding less often
  • Keeping a treat in the hand you are luring with but rewarding with the other hand
  • Keeping the hand movement but “faking” it with no treat in the hand

Another option is to switch to shaping as soon as your dog understands the basics of the behaviour and mix a little bit of luring with shaping.


Shaping

Shaping requires your dog to think and concentrate. Shaping relies on your dog trying to solve a problem rather than being shown the solution with Luring. Your dog will need to think and offer different behaviours and you will guide the process using a marker and a reward for each small step that takes the dog closer to the solution. The markers I use are either the clicker or a “Yes” command. In summary, the dog must figure out which behaviour will lead to a reward.

As an example, to teach your dog to push his nose on your hand using only shaping, you would increase the criteria before using your marker the following way:

  • Mark and reward first when your dog simply looks at your hand
  • Mark and reward when your dog brings its nose next to your hand
  • Mark and reward when the dog’s nose touches your hand

The main problem with shaping occurs when the handler tries to progress too quickly with a difficult behaviour; the dog will get confused and frustrated and will give up. As a handler, you need to really help your dog and only raise the criteria very slowly.

You will need to be very patient, observant and have good timing when marking a specific behaviour, so the dog does not get confused. You also need to be very encouraging especially with a dog who tends to have less confidence or less motivation.

Shaping is fun to watch and play with your dog and the technique really helps developing great problem-solving dogs.

Capturing

Capturing is when you wait for your dog to offer a behaviour naturally and when it does you use your Marker and a reward to indicate to your dog that it has done a behaviour you like.

When your dog understands the principle of “Click” = “Reward” from the shaping techniques, capturing full, natural behaviours can be remarkably effective.

In essence shaping is capturing micro behaviours that slowly progress towards a full behaviour, whilst with capturing you only capture the end behaviour that is offered naturally by the dog.

To capture a behaviour, you need to be both opportunistic and alert. As soon as your dog offers the behaviour you like, you click and reward. In some cases, you may well find it is not a behaviour you wanted to train for, but your dog is offering it and you like it so just grab the opportunity, click and reward.

Do not restrict yourself by only using capturing during a training session; I often use capturing any time during the day when I see my dog perform a behaviour I like.

Two behaviours that are extremely easy to capture are the play bow position and the chin on the floor. With the play bow, I tend to have an idea when during the day my dog may offer it to me, and I just capture it at the moment; Usually this is when my dog wants to get me to play with him.