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Shaping in Dog Training: Building a Stronger Bond

Shaping is a very important part of clicker training. It is the art of essentially playing "hot and cold" with your learner to help them discover what behaviour you want. We do this often when working with our dogs and typically in partnership of targets. By asking for little bits of the behaviour at a time, we can slowly help guide them to the end goal.


Since all learning organisms learn the same way, I often play this game with human learners. This offers us the opportunity to understand the concepts by putting ourselves in our dogs shoes.


A special thank you to the majestic Tercorn for playing and learning with us!




What is Shaping?


Shaping is a positive reinforcement training method that involves breaking down complex behaviors into smaller, more manageable steps. Instead of expecting your dog to perform a behavior perfectly from the start, shaping encourages progress through rewarding successive approximations of the desired behavior. It's a bit like putting together a puzzle – one piece at a time.


How Does Shaping Work?


  1. Choose Your Behavior: Start by deciding on the behavior you want to teach your dog. Whether it's teaching your dog to retrieve a ball, roll over, or perform an intricate trick, breaking it down into smaller components makes the training process more manageable.

  2. Capture the First Step: Observe your dog's natural behavior and reward any small step that is in the right direction. For example, if you're teaching your dog to fetch, you might reward them for showing interest in the ball or moving closer to it.

  3. Build On Success: Once your dog consistently performs the initial step, raise your expectations. If they were previously rewarded for merely approaching the ball, now they should touch it or pick it up.

  4. Consistency is Key: Be consistent with your rewards. Use treats, praise, or toys as positive reinforcement when your dog gets closer to the final desired behavior.

  5. Shape the Ultimate Behavior: Keep raising the bar until your dog has successfully shaped the behavior you originally wanted. In the case of fetching, this means your dog will eventually pick up the ball and bring it back to you.

  6. Add a Cue: Once your dog has mastered the behavior through shaping, introduce a verbal or hand signal cue. This allows you to command the behavior in the future.

  7. Practice and Reinforce: Continue practicing the behavior regularly to reinforce it. Dogs thrive on repetition and consistency.


Benefits of Shaping in Dog Training

  • Promotes Problem-Solving: Shaping encourages dogs to think and problem-solve, which stimulates their mental abilities and keeps them engaged.

  • Strengthens the Human-Canine Bond: Shaping deepens the bond between you and your dog as it relies on trust and cooperation. It also demonstrates your patience and commitment to their learning process.

  • Enhances Communication: As you and your dog learn to communicate effectively through shaping, you'll find that you can tackle more complex behaviors and tricks in the future.

  • Adaptable to Any Age or Breed: Shaping is suitable for dogs of all ages and breeds, making it a versatile and inclusive training method.

  • Positive Reinforcement: Shaping relies on positive reinforcement, which is a humane and effective way to train dogs, ensuring they enjoy the process and eagerly participate.


In conclusion, shaping in dog training is a powerful tool for both teaching new behaviors and strengthening the relationship between you and your furry friend. It encourages patience, understanding, and a deep level of communication, all of which contribute to a harmonious and joyful life together. So, grab some treats and start shaping your way to a happier, well-behaved dog!

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