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!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.