Free shape—or not?
Free shaping is a type of animal training where you teach the behaviours in gradual steps using a marker, like a clicker, and rewards. Shaping can be a great way to teach some difficult behaviours, expand your animal’s capabilities, exercise your animal’s brain, and build your chops as a trainer. There has been a recent trend pushing toward free shaping as much as possible. While it is a powerful training tool, it can also be frustrating for the learner if the shaping is done poorly. Free shaping is sometimes not the most effective training option.
If you want to be successful building behaviours with shaping, you will need to have good timing. There are lots of games you can play to practice timing with a clicker. Try bouncing a ball and clicking every time it hits the ground. Or, while watching TV, take a few minutes and click every time the camera angle changes. If you don’t have good timing, you’re not going to be able to click your target’s behaviour, and you might end up shaping some pretty bizarre actions.
Before beginning shaping sessions you should have a plan of what the probable steps of the behaviour should look like. Start with something the dog can and likely will do easily, and build up in logical steps to the finished behaviour. For example, if I wanted to train my dog to bow, my steps might look something like:
- Dip the head in a standing position
- Head halfway to the floor
- Nose close to touching the floor
- Elbows bent
- Elbows touching floor, rear in the air—a bow!
Establishing criteria and reinforcement rate
A common misconception about free shaping is that there is a lack of information provided to the learner. The truth is that if you are free shaping well, you will provide plenty of feedback to the animal. Your goal should be about 15 clicks a minute—that is feedback an average of every 4 seconds. With that rate of feedback and reinforcement, your dog should be having lots of success, understanding what you are looking for, and working eagerly for you. If you notice your dog getting frustrated, then you are probably asking too much and need to adjust your criteria.
When you are getting the 15 clicks a minute consistently after a few training sessions, then it is time to wait the dog out before offering the next step of your shaping plan. Keep your training sessions short, only a minute or two in length, and track how many treats you go through so you know what your rate of reinforcement is. Count out a certain number of treats before the session, and count what was left afterward to know how many clicks per minute you logged.
Cues to communicate
Another objection to free shaping is that it causes dogs to be frantic and to offer behaviours continually. While this definitely can happen, I don’t feel it is the fault of free shaping itself. I believe that dogs get this way because their trainers do not add cues early enough. It’s commonly accepted in the clicker training world that you do not add a cue until the behaviour is perfect. However, this gives the animal plenty of rehearsals of the behaviour without a cue attached. The more times the dog does the behaviour without being cued, and gets reinforced for it, the more likely it will be that the dog will offer that behaviour when it hasn’t been asked (cued) to do so.
So, when do you add a cue? As early as possible! When you can predict with relative certainty that the dog will do some form of the behaviour, start attaching a cue. Once you add a cue, do not reinforce un-cued responses afterwards. You can always change your cue once you get the behaviour exactly where you want it so your final cue is not attached to the imperfections associated with training.
Provided that your dog has a good understanding of the concept of cues and you are diligent about getting behaviours on stimulus control, this practice will help avoid frantic offering of behaviour. Your dog will know the difference between when it is time to experiment (shaping) and when to perform a specific behaviour when asked. Another trick I really like to do that seems to help dogs have a “shaping off-switch” is to use “game on” and “game off” signals to indicate when we are going to start shaping and when we are done. I will use “are you ready?” to mean we are going to start training and “all done” to tell the dog our session is over.
One of the single most important efforts that can speed up your shaping sessions (and training in general) is utilizing the placement of rewards. For example, you can deliver your reinforcement in a physical location that will jump-start your dog to offer the next repetition. Reward placement comes down to planning, but also to thinking on your feet. Where do you want the dog to be positioned to set up for the next rep? If you want the dog to stay in position, deliver the food directly to the dog. If, for example, you are trying to train a dog to go around an object, click for just moving beside it and toss the food so that the dog has to move even further around it. Instead of having the dog return to you to get the food, jump-start the behaviour of moving around the object by using your food reward placement to get the dog there. If you want to set the dog up to repeat an action, go to a platform, for example, toss the food away after you click so that the dog moves off and has the opportunity to return to the platform.
Many people think that they have to be extremely sterile during clicker training, and during shaping in general. Not true! Put some heart into it! If you are engaging, your dog is going to enjoy the process so much more. Training should be a game that both of you enjoy. While you should remain quiet before you click, there is no reason why you cannot praise the heck out of your dog after a click, for a big breakthrough, or at the end of a session. Relax, have fun!
Shaping—just one tool
While shaping can be a really cool way to teach some behaviours, it is not always the most efficient or effective way to train a skill. This is why shaping is not something I use to train all the time; I use shaping if I cannot get the behaviour easily in another manner, or if I want to challenge myself and my dog. To avoid frustration and make training go smoother, I suggest that you pick a method that will get the behaviour started as quickly as possible. Often, this choice will not be shaping. Utilizing prompts such as targets, setting up the environment, or even just capturing may be much faster means of training. You can even mix a combination of targeting, shaping, etc— whatever works best to explain to the animal what you are looking for.
One wonderful benefit of shaping is that there are no prompts to fade, since the training process is based completely on the dog offering behaviours. If you are going to use a prompt, it is important that you do not use it more than is necessary. For example, if the animal will do the behaviour naturally, you don’t need to set up the environment. If you can set up the training area to get the behaviour easily, try not to use targets. If you can get the job done with targets, avoid using a lure. The less you prompt, the less you have to fade. Remember, if you are using a prompt, you want to fade it as quickly as possible to avoid the animal’s reliance on it. Get the prompt out of the picture as quickly as you can.
Some dogs will prefer shaping more than others. If one of you, you or your dog, does not really like shaping, that’s just fine. There are plenty of other training tools to teach your dog to perform many wonderful tricks and behaviours. My 5-year-old Belgian shepherd, Dexter, loves to shape and is really fun to work with. I will do shaping with him often, just because he is so enjoyable to train this way. In contrast, my young Australian shepherd, Brew, finds shaping a frustrating process. For Brew, I limit the amount of shaping I do and try to use other methods to prompt behaviours with him. I do work on shaping with him occasionally, as it is good practice for him to think and use his brain in that way. Sometimes shaping really is the best way to accomplish my goals.
A useful technique
Shaping is often misunderstood and can be difficult to do well. But if you have well-developed timing and planning skills, with some practice it can be a helpful addition to your toolkit—especially as there are some behaviors you can shape that are very difficult to train in another manner. Overall, shaping is an excellent way to enhance your skills as a trainer and exercise your dog mentally.
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