My dog Idgie is eleven years old, and when I got her as an 8 week old puppy I was determined to “shape” 100% of her training. I was under the impression that luring was mindless, and I had fairly recently removed the use of aversive tools and practices from my repertoire. In my mind, shaping–which I understood at the time to be a “pure” process in which I would mark and reinforce approximations of my goal behavior without prompts or lures–was the holy grail of training. I wanted to be an excellent trainer, I had learned how to shape behaviors this way with my crossover dog, and I got straight to work. Luckily, Idgie is a genius and a fast learner, so it worked out OK for us most of the time. I can recall some specific instances in which Idgie was screaming at me in frustration, throwing behaviors out frantically, trying desperately to get me to click. I thought that was how it was supposed to go. I got results, so I didn’t worry too much about the process.
Friends, things have changed. Massively. Today, I utilize whatever I think is best for the job. Typically that is a shaping process, but my shaping is almost never void of prompts, lures, or other aids. I am heavily focused on process, not just outcome. I want the act of training to be enjoyable for both the dog and myself. I want to look forward to shaping new behaviors; and I hope my dogs feel the same. Neither of us should feel frustrated. It took more than a change of perspective for me to get here. Let’s examine some of the key changes I have made.
I was taught that “free” shaping was void of prompts and anything else wasn’t shaping. This is a silly idea, and one that harms dog trainers’ progress with their dogs. Today, I love prompts. I use them in most of my training. If I can tap into my goal behavior in fewer reps by using a prop, prompt, or lure, I will. I no longer fear the fading of the prompt. I no longer belittle my own achievements if they involved luring. I now understand how to best utilize each and every tool in the box, which makes me a stronger trainer overall.
Early on, I did learn the phrase “click for action, treat for position,” and I did my best to embody this. Later, I learned the rest of the phrase: “click for action, treat for position most advantageous to the trainer.” Today, I work hard to decide how and where I will deliver my dog’s reinforcer, and I evaluate this piece constantly as the best delivery changes while the approximations do. I can affect momentum, posture, and so much more with the simple delivery of the food, so why wouldn’t I?
Splitting is a vital skill. Performing a task analysis on a goal behavior is an exercise we all need in order to truly understand this process. And yet, learning how to shape via core behaviors more than by building the goal behavior from “scratch” (so to speak) has been the path forward for me in my training. It makes sense: a dog that understands stillness as a core behavior will better understand how to quietly hold a dumbbell than one that doesn’t. A dog with experience placing his muzzle into a cone, cup, or other object will be easier to muzzle train. Call it core behaviors, component training, or just plain foundational skills, learning to see the core behaviors required for the goal behavior is a skill that can’t be bypassed.
Curious about this stuff and want to learn more? Sign up for the course here in my very own Cog Dog Classroom.