I remember when I first attempted shaping with a dog; about a thousand years ago.  I followed the general description of the training game in Karen Pryor’s ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog!’.  I had a box, a clicker, a dog, and treats.  And I waited, and waited, and waited.  My dog stared at my treats.  I stared at my dog.  Nobody looked at the box.  I did, however, manage to teach my dog to whine and drool.  Brilliant.  Not an auspicious beginning.

These days, however, shaping is my favorite way to train.  When I say that I get all the typical responses “I don’t have the patience for shaping”, “my dog gets frustrated with shaping”, “I don’t want my dog throwing out a bunch of random frantic behaviors”, “my dog shuts down and stops working if I try to shape”, and so on.  Like Shrodinger’s cat, these statements are both valid and invalid at the same time.  They are true because that is the experience these trainers had; but they don’t have to be true.  These outcomes and subsequent negative associations with shaping come from a simplistic and unclear view of the value and subtleties of the technique.

As a trainer, this outcome is not your fault.  If you are taking the purist paradigm of being perfectly still and letting your dog struggle to figure out what in the heck you want, it’s probably because that’s what you were taught to do.  There are ways to prepare for and set up shaping sessions so that you can tip the odds in favor of your dog having quick success, which then builds on itself.  With success comes confidence and enjoyment, for both of you.


Here are a few ideas for making your shaping attempts more successful:

1.Keep all shaping sessions to 30-60 seconds.  Use a timer because it goes a LOT faster than you think.  When the time is up toss your dog a few cookies to end the session.

2. Practice with a new unique shaping object each day for a couple of weeks.  I do this with all my puppies.  Reinforce ANY acknowledgement that the object exists.  Looking at it, moving towards it, sniffing it, all count.  Don’t worry about a specific target behavior; your target behavior is interaction of any sort.

3. Look at the object, not at your dog.  A mutual staring contest isn’t what we want here.

4. If you haven’t reinforced anything in 3 seconds do a treat toss for your dog to chase.  Watch closely to see if he looks or moves towards the object as he returns.

5. Use jackpots to make particularly good repetitions memorable.  I do one cookie for a normal behavior, but 5-6 for something much better.

6. For dogs that tend to get stuck reinforce body movement .  Mark and treat every ear flick, weight shift, and tail swish.  We want to make them “twitchy” so they come to understand that offering behavior is good.

7. Location of treat delivery matters quite a bit.  Feed where you want your dog to be for 4-5 repetitions, then do a treat toss to reset.

Shaping is a complex and sophisticated training technique.  It can allow us to train things  that would be difficult to impossible to get any other way.  A dog that understands how to shape is much easier to train than one that isn’t.  He’ll meet us halfway in our training efforts.

I have so much to say about shaping that I have developed an online course that begins December 1 called Beyond the Basics: Shaping Advanced Skills.  Working (Gold) spots are filled with a variety of excellent trainers & dogs.  If you want to follow along you can observe all the teams as we work through shaping challenges.  You also get a huge amount of lecture material and video demonstrations.