How to: Start Shaping

I'm getting ready to teach a tricks class* and started thinking about how I can introduce people to free shaping.  I am sure that many people have heard of "the box game" and that many have given up.  Free shaping is hard!  The dogs who have been so used to getting lured for everything will just sit and stare.  People are told to not say anything, don't move a muscle, and just wait.  And so they do, and so the dogs stare while the drool starts coming down.  Eventually either the dog or person gives up and they think that clicker training isn't for them.  But I don't think it has to be this way!

Back to the box game, the original game is called 101 Things To Do With A Box and it's a creativity game invented by Karen Pryor.  The dog is clicked for any NEW behavior he offers.  So a paw touch might be clicked once, but a nudge of the nose the 2nd time, then climbing inside it, etc.  I have never played that version.  I think it's a great idea but I personally want the dog learning that a click means they are on the right track.  I don't want them learning a click means to not do that again!  I know an advanced dog CAN learn the difference between a traditional shaping session and the 101 Box game but I can see a new dog and person quickly give up.

The version that I recommend is clicking any interaction with the object.  The 3rd or 4th time you play you can start to narrow down your criteria and actually work towards a specific goal.  But the first few times I just want the dog to know that it is his job to interact with whatever I put on the floor.  If I'm working with a person who has tried to play the game before and failed, I won't even use a box.  They see the box as boring.  Instead I'll put down a block to start pivoting skills, a small basket that the dog will eventually learn to jump in, or even a skateboard (rigged so it can't move on the dog).  I will put down any object other than a box to try and get a fresh start.

I then have the person MOVE and TALK!  While eventually I want the team to be able to sit quietly and let the dog think, I also want want both dog and person to be successful and have fun.  They know how to lure, so let them do it for a little bit.  Put the object against a wall and stand so the dog has no choice but to step on it or sniff it.  Yeah he might delicately stretch his feet over it in the beginning so not one paw touches it, but still click the proximity to the object!  Feed ON the object so that the block/skateboard/whatever seems to grow the treats.  Treats don't come from you, they magically appear on the object!  Is the dog still standing on it (eating it's treat perhaps)?  Then click and drop another one on it! 

When the dog starts to think that the magic object gets him the treats, then CHUCK the treat down the hallway.  Dogs love thrown treats so it makes it fun, plus it resets the behavior without the person having to move.  If the dog doesn't come right back to step on the magical treat growing object, then by all means move around the object to get his attention.  And if you have to, sure go ahead and lure them up on it.  But keep tossing those treats and gradually start moving away from the object.  I don't find that it is long before I can get rid of that lure and have the dog offering interacting with the object.  Remember to quit after a pretty short time those first few sessions so that the dog is left wanting to work.  If you get stuck, try picking up the object, moving a few steps, and then putting it back down.  Most dogs will reinvestigate the object so click right away and then end shortly after.

The beginner dog and person should go through the above for a few more sessions.  The point is not to get the standing silently and waiting from the get go, but to teach the dog to interact with objects and the student how to click the little steps.  When the dog is happily running over without any lure or movement from the person, then start the free shaping.  Start defining the tricks and decide the tricks that you want to teach.

To summerize here is my advice for new shapers:
- Go ahead, move and lure in the beginning
- Throw the treat.  Makes it fun and resets the dog.  THROW IT!
- Do it in a hallway.  This way if he gets stuck and you toss that treat, you can now re click the dog for running back towards the object (even if he was just trying to get to you)
- Drop the treat on the object in the beginning stages.  Make the object magical!
- Pick it up, move a few steps, put it back down.
- Be prepared to start the training session as soon as you put that object down.  Most dogs will go sniff the object right away, all dogs will at least look at it.  If you aren't ready, you miss these first valuable clicks!

It may not be the conventional way to teaching shaping but I have had success with these methods.  If I can prevent the dog and the person from giving up in those initial sessions then it is easier to start real free shaping.

Does anybody have any other tips in either getting the dog to start interacting with an object or to help the person learn the skills? 

*I got roped into teaching classes at TCOTC.  It's been a while since I've taught a class so I'm a bit nervous.  Will be starting the end of January with this tricks class and a competition obedience class (all current students are at the novice level).  They're desperate for instructors :)

Mango  – ( December 21, 2010 at 6:03 AM )  

Thanks for the reminder. I need to go back to that with Dexter because he is a challenge to teach new behaviors with an old object. Once he gets it in his head that it is training time, he just flings all his old stuff my way. Right now I want him to learn to put his back feet only up on a little step (instead of his front feet). I think the wait for it and click will do wonders.

Mango Momma

Crystal  – ( December 21, 2010 at 9:37 AM )  

You will do GREAT. And I'm tempted to take your tricks class. What night will it be?

Kristine  – ( December 21, 2010 at 11:51 AM )  

One of the most fun shaping games/tricks I learned and taught my dog was simply getting her to look at her tail on cue. The exercise was so simple and so much fun that I was immediately hooked on shaping.

Basically, I just c/t any movement of her head at first. And then when she started moving it more often, I only c/t when she moved it in a specific direction, like towards her tail. Within five minutes, she was looking all the way backwards.

The verbal cue I use is "Where's your tail?" but anything would work. It is one of our biggest crowd-pleasing tricks and it was absolutely the easiest to teach.

Of course, Shiva was already used to offering behaviours and every dog learns at a different pace, but I thought it was so cool that I could teach her a trick while sitting on the couch and watching television. It made a huge impression on me at the time.

Good luck! A tricks class would be a lot of fun!

Cynthia  – ( December 21, 2010 at 1:31 PM )  

Sounds like you have some really good ideas! I think the goal is important.. if it's pet people just wanting to have fun with their dog, vs people who will be training for obedience or agility or any other sport. Some behaviors are not desirable for sports. :)

Jet has so many behaviors on a box and a perch that it's hard to get a new one out of him. Like the stand for exam on a box... he'll sit on it, he'll 2o2o on it, he'll put his front feet on it and rotate his rear. But getting him to just stand is hard now. =P

Also, with free shaping, I think one of the drawbacks is to teach a dog to sit or stand still without moving at all. Which is also a necessary skill for the sports. I've had to work pretty hard on that too, since my dogs all know how to offer behaviors. :)

Ninso  – ( December 21, 2010 at 2:16 PM )  

That all sounds pretty consistent with what I've done. I think it's easiest to start shaping with a prop. One of the hardest parts with a new dog or a new trainer is noticing "clickable" actions. Even a friend of mine who is a dog trainer had a hard time with one of his aussies. He told me that every time he tried shaping the dog just stood there and did nothing, even if he used a prop. I worked with the dog and turns out that wasn't true. The dog didn't do much, but he did do stuff. He would shift his weight, turn his head slightly, occasionally picked up a foot. And movement is clickable, and the more you c/t, the more confident the dog becomes in offering behaviors. I shaped a side-step pretty quickly in that "unshapable" dog. And once the dog gets the concept of shaping it will go faster and faster. Lok is my hardest dog to shape, but even he is WAY better than he used to be about offering behaviors and trying things. Patience and high rate of reward are important, and people should keep in mind that as cool as shaping is, there is no shame in luring or using any other (positive) method to get to the desired result. Shaping isn't better, just different.

One other point in response to Cynthia, I do a ton of shaping and I haven't had any issues teaching my dogs to stay in one position. It's pretty easy to shape duration in any position and then put that on cue. My dogs seem to know the difference between working on cued behaviors and when it's shaping time.

Laura, Lance, and Vito  – ( December 21, 2010 at 5:51 PM )  

Nancy- the advice wasn't really for you! You know how to shape and your dogs know how. You just have to be ready to click quickly with your spaz. Reward placement might help though, if you can quicky get the treat to him while his back feet are on it. Or put it against a wall so that he can back onto it easier (use something low) or at least will have to turn around right away.

Crystal- the class is going to be Wednesdays at 5:50pm, starting Jan 26, not sure for how many weeks yet. But I don't know that you need any help with tricks! I have no clue what type of people will sign up when the sheets come out, but so far the interest has been other instructors. So I'm hoping that it's going to be a teach your dog whatever you want and I'll help problem solve and give ideas type of class.

Kristine- Lance was taught that trick too pretty early on :) I think it's hard for new people to click body movements though which is why I like working with props in the beginning.

Cynthia- I'm having a hard time teaching my dogs duration with a paw on the nose. But overall I haven't run into a problem with the dog throwing different behaviors at me, just with getting duration of that one behavior. I tend to rapid fire click and feed in position. Of course it's easier to do with a prop again than without one.

Ninso- I totally agree that props are easier to start new people on. And even then the person has to be quick to mark all those little things the dog does. I just have a real hard time getting people to notice those things in the beginning so I have had better luck with getting them to do a lure/shape combo for the first few sessions to at least get the dog interacting with an object. Pure shaping is way cooler though!

Catalina  – ( December 21, 2010 at 6:23 PM )  

Well, I wrote a long comment, but I guess blogger hates me - it deleted it!
Anyway, Thank you so much for writing this post. I've read it about 4 times now LOL!
It is so nice to know that I can talk to Tibby and it's OK to lure a little bit.
The hardest problem I have is trying to move too fast. It's hard for me to figure out when to progress in the trick and ask for a more specific action/without Tibby getting frustrated and walking away.

Laura, Lance, and Vito  – ( December 21, 2010 at 7:02 PM )  

It is really hard to find that line between having the dog quit because it's too hard or getting stuck at the same level since that is all you've rewarded. It does get easier though the more the dog gets used to offering and the more you get used to clicking the little things.

Is there a specific trick you're working on that I can throw out ideas for?

Muttsandaklutz  – ( December 21, 2010 at 8:07 PM )  

I think that's a great approach. You're going to make a seriously fantastic teacher!

Rekha  – ( December 22, 2010 at 3:25 AM )  

Hey its an effective ideas to train up our pets but some tricks can be taught only when they grow old right??

Laura, Lance, and Vito  – ( December 22, 2010 at 8:14 AM )  

Rekha- puppies are extremely fast learners and can definitely learn how to offer behaviors right away. I think many greatly prefer if their puppy learns shaping right from the start since then you don't have the problem with a dog just staring at you blankly.

The only tricks I don't teach puppies are jumping tricks, weave poles, and handstands. Otherwise the sky is the limit :)

Crystal  – ( December 22, 2010 at 8:49 AM )  

Laura, I know I don't NEED the class... but it SOUNDS fun! Do you know which ring you'll be in? I don't think Maisy is ready for the big 4-ring room, but if you'll be back in that quieter room (whatever it's called now), we might sign up.

I'm also thinking about going to the Trkman sessions on tricks when she's here at the end of January/beginning of February.

Catalina  – ( December 23, 2010 at 10:46 AM )  

The tricks I'm working on right now are crawl, stand on a overturned flat bowl and get into the bowl.
I saw a video like this

That's what we are working towards for the 'get into a bowl' - so far we have 2 feet in the bowl.
For standing on the bowl we have 2 feet on 100% of the time. If I put the bowl down and point at it she stands on it, but I can't get her to move her hind legs up on to it.
For the crawl- I have her crawling underneath a short stool. We just can't progress to getting rid of the stool.
I also working on shake and spin. Shake is pretty good, but spin is still hard for her.

Catalina  – ( December 23, 2010 at 12:10 PM )  

We just had a break through! I did a quick training session with Tibby and she now has 4 feet on the bowl (standing on it) and 2 feet in the bowl.
That's after 3 training sessions of 5mins over 2 days.
She is so easy to train, if only I was a better trainer :(

achieve1dream  – ( January 9, 2011 at 9:46 PM )  

You're so lucky you get to teach. That's all I'm lacking is real world experience. I have a lot of the book learning down, although I'm still always learning more about clicker. This post for example. Brilliant!! I think some of the suggestions you give here will be great for helping Storm understand shaping better. She was trained the traditional way so thinking for herself is a new idea. Thanks!!

Post a Comment

Thank you for reading! If the link to Post a Comment is not working, click where it lists "X Comments" at the bottom of the post, right after the date field.

Thanks for reading my blog! Please Subscribe by Email!

Contact Me!

Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.- Roger Caras

Email: lkwaudby (at)

Online Private Training:

  © Blogger template Shush by 2009

Back to TOP   

href=""/blog/feed/" onclick="pageTracker._trackPageview('/feed/');"