In honor of National Train Your Dog Month I thought I’d discuss something very “meat and potatoes” regarding dog training. In fact, this concept is so basic, that in less-sophisticated dog training circles it isn’t even discussed. The concept I am speaking of is how to get a behavior. In order to train a behavior to a dog you must get the dog to perform the behavior first, and the means by which this is acheived varies from trainer to trainer and task to task.
The Cognitive Canine, LLC is dedicated to dog-friendly training, which means that methods that utilize force or violence will not be discussed here. Coercion has no place in real dog training, simple as that. If you are a dog owner and a trainer you are working with thinks that a shock collar, a prong collar, or a choke collar are acceptable or necessary to teach a dog then I beg you to take a closer look at what dog training has to offer–dogs are incredible learners and we don’t need to use violence to get the job done. I would humbly argue that even if one feels the “need” to use violence, one still has no right to inflict pain or fear on another animal, ever. Why people feel that it’s ok to use violent methods in cases of aggression in particular is an interesting topic reserved for another day. For now, let’s talk about the three “acceptable” ways to get a behavior.
Shaping or shaping by successive approximation is, in my opinion, the “real deal” in animal training. A basic definition of this is teaching by marking (with a clicker or verbal marker) and rewarding tiny increments (approximations) of the final behavior until the final behavior is achieved. This is how I teach almost everything, and it is nothing short of magic. Here’s a video of one of the world’s best trainers and her dogs doing some tricks that were taught by shaping. The first thing you will notice is that these dogs are doing very complicated tricks, very well, without much aid from their human. That’s the first brilliant thing about shaping–you can teach a dog anything. But watch it again and notice the sheer joy and unbridled enthusiasm the dogs have for working. They LOVE doing these tricks. They seem hungry for more. What if you trained sit, down, stay, and come with the same method? You guessed it, you get brilliance and enthusiasm all over again. I could go on for pages about WHY shape, or you could take my class and taste the magic for yourself. Just shoot me an email at training at thecognitivecanine dot com (but written like a real email address, obviously).
Capturing is also done with a marker, but instead of marking and rewarding approximations, the entire final behavior is marked and rewarded. This is where opponents of clicker training often think it begins and ends. You wait for the dog to do the thing (like sit) you click, and you treat. This is a GREAT method of teaching simple basic behaviors like sit or lie down, but not for more complicated behaviors as seen in the video above. I love capturing and I use it whenever appropriate–and it is only appropriate if the desired behavior is already happening to some degree and is somewhat predictable.
Lure-reward training is the most common method used by positive reinforcement-based dog trainers. It’s simple, show the dog a cookie and guide them into position, then praise and give them the cookie for assuming the position. For the average pet owner, it works out just great. The dog is decently trained and the humans are happy. I find that it falls short in a few areas for the level of training that I expect from myself and my students, and so I use it rarely. My biggest issue with luring for myself is the lack of thought involved on the dog’s part, and for my clients it is that luring is actually mechanically difficult to do well. I know, I know, everyone is shocked. It’s that clicker training that’s mechanically difficlut! I agree, both are mechanical skills, but luring involves more steps to get to the final product, and I find that Joe Dog Owner likes to skip steps, so I prefer clicker training/shaping for everyone, not just myself.