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  • Writer's pictureDr Euan J McLean

Better Shape Up!

Once we understand the *basic principles behind training, we are able to apply them in order to train complex behaviours. A common application of the basic principles is the use of shaping. Intuitively, shaping involves gradual training of behaviours, starting from a very simple approximation of the desired behaviour, through to the actual desired behaviour.

To successfully shape a behaviour, each successive approximation of the behaviour is rewarded. As a result, the timing of reward is even more critical, as the trial approximations of behaviour may be subtle and short lived.

The first attempts are rarely perfect, but it’s important to see them as integral parts of the training process.


In a previous article, readers were asked to suggest a trick to teach Grace, my Golden Retriever. Teaching her to “beg” on her haunches was chosen, because it’s traditionally a difficult behaviour to train in larger dogs.

This is where careful planning should take place, and is a step many people fail to give adequate time. In planning, the important aspects include choosing a cue and developing a strategy. Additionally, I like to identify situations that already elicit an approximation of the desired behaviour.

The utilisation of an existing behaviour helps to streamline the learning process. For instance, I noted that Grace often stood on her hind legs just before I threw her toy at the park. I quickly realised that my throwing stance in particular made her lift her front feet. With reinforcement, accurate timing, and use of the “Beg” cue, I could soon get her to stand up with just the cue, and not the throwing stance.  The great part about this is that it cuts out the early trial and error phase of training. You know the part; where you say “Beg!” forty-seven-thousand times whilst your dog trials barking, sniffing, growling and any other non-begging behaviour.

It’s worth noting that luring could have been utilised in this situation, whereby I could get her to follow a treat in my hand as I raised it up, and rewarded her when she stood. For sake of example, I decided to use a situational approach, as some behaviours cannot be lured: Speak, fetch, and back-away are examples that come to mind. Historically, I have also found that luring can make animals overly focused on the treat hand, and sometimes a little.

Using a situation, body position or action that already elicits a vague approximation of the desired behaviour helps streamline the initial trial-and-error phase.


In terms of strategy, I decided early on that I would make her sit first, then ask for beg, in order to set up the trials for the highest possible likelihood of successful attempts. Simple planning like this helps to reduce the number of trials required before the correct behaviour is displayed. Another example of this would be to get a dog excited if I was trying to teach “Speak”, as the likelihood of the desired behaviour spontaneously occurring is much higher.

Good planning helps set up training experiences for success. Sitting before ‘beg’ helps set up the desired behaviour, as well as getting her attention. Keeping reward hidden helps to prevent pushy behaviour.

From this point on, only successive approximations of the desired behaviours are rewarded. For instance, at first I say “beg!” and she stands all the way up. After a few repetitions of this I move on so that I only reward attempts where she doesn’t fully stand up, or pauses a little on her haunches. In this way, if my timing is perfect, I can present the reinforcer at the exact moment that she is begging on her haunches. After a number of repetitions, she paused for successively longer times on her haunches. At this stage I would only reward her if she paused for a moment, then a second, and then a few seconds and so on.

Delivering the reinforcer at the exact time that she is performing the desired behaviour becomes difficult in this situation. This is where clicker training becomes integral to the process. Clicker training uses classical conditioning to associate the click with a food reward, so that the click can essentially be used as a reward. Because the click is instantly deliverable, it can be used as a marker for the correct behaviour, and can vastly improve timing. As a result, rapid progress on complicated behaviours can be made with shaping.

Closer and closer approximations of the correct behaviour are rewarded.

Good timing allows animals to quickly learn the behaviour they need to perform in order to get a treat.

Admittedly, as shown by our photo’s, Grace’s begging still needs a lot of work. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise any progress that is made, and acknowledge that many tricks are learnt and perfected over time.

Remember; any training at all is stimulating for both you and your pet, and as always, happy training!

Don't forget, training is not only important for ensuring our pets are well behaved, but also provides great mental enrichment for them!

Euan & Grace.

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