Shaping Your Dog’s Behavior

Shaping your dog’s behavior is essential in dog training.  The good thing about working with and training dogs is that they are pliable and constantly willing to learn and change their behavior if you learn to employ the right principles!

Shaping as defined in psychology is a process in which a long term goal is broken down into a series of gradual steps or intermediate goals, starting with simple easily performed tasks and gradually progressing to more complex and difficult behaviors.  For instance we don’t normally start off running a marathon after a period of inactivity; and likewise people don’t start playing the piano by playing Chopin, Beethoven or Mozart.  Complex behaviors must be chained.

This is what I love about positive reinforcement training, and why it is so easy for us to shape our dogs into exactly what we want (within reason ;)  you can’t change personality just behavior!)

Recently there was quite a debate on our message boards!  I love a good debate, it institutes thought on everyone’s part about how dog training works in general, how it applies to them as an individual how it applies to the “masses” in general.  As a matter of fact it can all be different!  Different takes on different theories make a person a good dog trainer, or at least a good dog trainer for their dog.  Dogs are equally as different as their owners!

Almost 20 years ago when I began dog training I was under the impression that all dogs should respond the same and behave the same for their owners.  Phrases like “All dogs should be kept off of furniture”, and “All dogs should undergo obedience training classes” were common.  But I soon realized that different people wanted different traits in their dogs.  Some people (usually with smaller dogs) accept jumping up on them and encourage sitting in their laps, and some people with bigger dogs don’t want their dogs to jump on them or get into their laps.  Each side is welcome to their interpretation and what they desire in their pets.  Not every person wants to compete for obedience titles either!


Some dogs herd, some wrangle rodents, some hunt, some are police dogs, some are just pets and others serve their people as working Assistance Dogs.  There are about as many uses for dogs as there are dogs and just as many ways to train them.

The thing about dog training is that it is dynamic and usually always changing.  When they are pups we usually teach them the basics like sit and down but as we progress through training we shape the ultimate behavior we want.  At first sit just meant to put his butt on the ground, later it may mean to sit and stay for two minutes or more.  It may come under the distraction of running sheep or fleeing fugitive.  Ultimately we “shape” what we need in our dogs by “uping the ante” or changing our expectations.

What is nice about dogs (as in difference to some of us who are older and stuck in our ways) is that they are usually always happy to learn and modify their behavior, provided we are asking in a fun and exciting way.  Their behavior is easily shaped by either using positive reinforcement to shape the new behavior or ignoring behaviors and never rewarding them again.

Shaping new behavior is quite simple, you basically teach your dog what your expectations are for the new behavior.  For example; I eventually drop “stay” from my obedience routine i.e. when I tell you “Down” stay is implied unless I tell you otherwise (I do realize some of you will disagree).  So after learning “Down” and “Stay” I begin to shape my new “Down with an implied Stay”.  This just helps me give one less command when I am competing and teaches my dog to pay attention.

I remember being in an obedience class years ago and if you stopped and walked away starting with your right leg, your dog was to stay but if you started with your left leg your dog was to follow you…but I am too absent minded for that, I could never get the coordination that it required.  So although this works fantastically for some dogs and people, it just is too complicated for me.  I am certainly no professional dancer either!

Like new behaviors associated with the same command are simple to teach, so is the extinguishing of previous behavior that you never want to see again, although it sometimes takes a little longer and isn’t quite as fun it is usually quite effective.  The key is to NEVER reward the behavior again, typically (as long as the behavior is not self rewarding; i.e. stealing food or essential to life; laying down) behavior that is not rewarded goes away.

My dogs retrieve, because I like it and I intermittently reward and reinforce it.  This intermittent reinforcement keeps the behavior strong.  However if I NEVER wanted my dogs to pick up anything that I drop again, I would never reward the behavior again.  Simply ignoring a behavior is often enough to stop it from occurring.  If there is no praise and no reward there is no reason to continue the behavior itself!

Both of these tactics shape your dog’s behavior.  Knowing that ask yourself how often you stop reinforcing good behavior all together?  This is often when we see dogs that simply stop listening to commands they once knew…there is no longer a reason to behave in a certain way.

Use these procedures to shape your dog into the dog of your dreams!  And, when you notice your dog is no longer listening ask yourself what might be going on in your relationship, what behavior are you rewarding or what behavior have you stopped rewarding?

Good luck and have fun training with your dog!

Start Calming Down Your Over Excited Dogs Today!

Your First Lesson’s FREE:

Sign up below and we’ll email you your first “Training For Calm” lesson to your inbox in the next 5 minutes.


  1. Josie Stapleton says:

    My year old miniture shelte is a herding dog, and she tries to herd everything, including cars coming and going. I have taught her not to follow my car, but she continues w/ my husband and others. What can I do? She isn’t motivated by treats. Josie


  2. Elizabeth Mercer says:

    I have two Boston Terriers and i planned to have them sleep in the kitchen until one night i heard pitter patter of feet coming up the stairs for Maxwell the four month old figured out how to jump a 27 inch gate and that was the end now they sleep under the bed,under the covers or on the dog bed.They are the best company a person can have and unconditional love.


  3. Dani Florea says:

    Hi Chet,
    Thanks for all your information! I have gleaned alot!
    My husband and I adopted Allie, a 4 year old female weimaraner after our 11 year old weimaraner died of cancer. We are such pushovers for these dogs, we allowed Allie to sleep on our bed after about 3 nights because she cried. She has been on the bed now for 4 months and we would really like to have more leg room and move her to her own bed.Any advice that would be fun and positive for her?


  4. Gina says:

    My husband and I find that our dogs are the most loyal ‘family members’ we have. We let two sleep in our bed every night… the other two prefer the floor except during playtime in the mornings. Then all four of them join us in bed and we ‘wrestle’ together and have a great time. Their love is uncondtional and we feel this world would be a better place if half of the human race just disappeared (lol) but hey, it’s true.
    Where can you find 100 percent uncondtitional love, loyalty with a great playmate other than your ‘pet family’ , excluding my husband of course.:)


  5. Maria Tereza Murray says:

    I have 2 small poodles.
    They are lovely and they sleep with me all night long.
    And when I wake up they continue sleeping until I finish my shower.
    That is very good, I love it.


  6. Bob says:

    Glad Elizabeth and Gina aren’t training my two 2yo border collie / kelpie cross ‘sheep dogs’. Remember that dogs are wild animals who have learned how to train humans. They are firstly human-trainers/owners, secondly can turn a bit wild again and thirdly might even allow us humans to think we’re in charge.
    Good luck with your dog relationships. Wish me luck with mine.


  7. Lewis Allen says:

    We have two dogs, one we have had for 8 years. She sleeps with us on our bed. The other is a Husky puppy, 6 months old. He will be allowed on the bed to sleep if we have enough room. But, first he has to get rid of some energy. 😉 I could not imagine not having a dog, or having to worry about him getting on the bed or furniture. They are part of our family, if it means cleaning more often, then so be it. The Husky does have a shedding problem, but a quick brushing in the wind every day helps that a lot. Let me have my dogs, you can have what ever you want.


  8. Linda Smith says:

    Good article. I need HELP. I adopted a 6-year-old dog from a shelter a month ago. She knows all the basic commands except heel. Her previous master passed away and his family left her at the shelter. I can only guess that he either jogged with the dog (Missy)but in any case she expects to be walked three times a day. She nearly pulls my arms out of the socket. How do I train an old dog a new skill? Any input greatly appreciated.


    Minette Reply:

    check out our leash training articles


  9. Suzy Sims says:

    Training Service Dogs has been really interesting since we use many different breeds and mixes. Each having their own strengths and weaknesses. We have a Great Pyranees about to place with a Veteran. I swear this dog is a giant daschound! He thinks about commands before complying, wants to lay in your lap (80 lbs), and has never met a stranger. When the vest goes on he is all business. Every dog is a little different, needs a little different approach to training. But then every Veteran we place them with has their own unique needs. Loved this article!


    Minette Reply:

    You have never met a dachshund if you think they have never met a stranger or want to comply hahaha


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *