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Misconceptions about Shaping

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In 1999, Paul Chance defined shaping as “the use of successive approximations to achieve a target behavioral goal.” In 2017, David Pierce and Carl Cheney used an almost identical definition, adding only that shaping includes the use of “selective reinforcement.” Based on those definitions, most of us use shaping every time we train. Yet, trainers still have misconceptions about shaping, and I find myself having to address those misconceptions with my students and clients. Here are five of the most common misunderstandings.

Misconception #1: Targeting is not a form of shaping

This is one of the most common misperceptions I encounter. When you use a target or any type of prompt, you are still relying on successive approximations and using selective reinforcement to achieve the goal behavior. Target training is shaping, or “shaping with a prompt.”

Misconception #2: Shaping and free shaping are the same thing

The term “free shaping” does not appear in scientific literature. It is a relatively new term that refers to the type of shaping where the trainer uses no deliberate prompts and makes no conscious attempt to adapt the learning environment to make the desired behavior more likely. Instead, the trainer captures small movements offered by the animal and gradually approximates toward a desired goal. Many people think of free shaping as “shaping,” and any arrangement of the environment is not “real shaping.” This perspective may stem from Skinner’s original work with animals in an operant chamber, where there was no obvious trainer interaction with the animal. The belief that shaping must be free of prompts in order to be “true” shaping is the cause of so much confusion.

Misconception #3: Free shaping does not rely on arrangement of the environment to achieve results

All behavior is impacted by the environment.

All behavior is impacted by the environment. Even if the trainer does nothing consciously, the environment has influence over the animal’s learning. By bringing the dog to a room, closing the door, and sitting near the dog with a pouch full of treats, the trainer relies on some environmental arrangement. Moreover, setting up the environment is an essential way to help your animal succeed, and it is a mark of good training. For example, placing a toy or a prop between you and your animal may encourage the animal to interact with the object; it is a good way to start a free shaping session.

Misconception #4: Free shaping is a better way to train

I do not consider free shaping to be a better way to train. Free shaping is a difficult skill to master, particularly for novice trainers who can frustrate their animal easily. Professional trainers need to know how to free shape, but they should prioritize using whichever technique is going to set up their animal for success the best.

Some trainers prefer to train without prompts so that the animal figures out the behavior on its own and is not dependent on external environmental cues.

If you don’t focus on the environment in the beginning, you will need to focus on it eventually.

However, the animal will still perceive the cues that are in the environment while training. That is why some dogs have difficulty transferring behavior into new locations or new contexts; all the new environmental cues in the new location were not part of the initial training. If you don’t focus on the environment in the beginning, you will need to focus on it eventually.

Whether a trainer uses capturing, targeting, luring, molding, or free shaping, every technique has benefits and drawbacks. Skilled trainers will know how and when to use each one.

Misconception #5: Mixing free shaping with other techniques is wrong

There is nothing wrong with combining techniques. People believe that certain techniques must be used in their “purest” form because some professional dog training schools and programs, including the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional program, require their students to learn how to shape behavior with minimal to no prompting. These professional dog training programs aim to teach students to use all the available training tools, focusing on each tool separately, so that the student can use them in an expert manner when needed. A basketball coach may ask an athlete to practice passing, dribbling, and shooting free throws during certain segments of practice, not because the athlete will use only one of those tools in a game, but because it helps athletes develop each skill thoroughly before an actual game. Similarly, a trainer should practice and learn various individual techniques, so that when s/he works with an animal, s/he can adapt and mix the techniques as needed.

Final thoughts

Shaping has become such a hot topic lately that we have decided to include it in a new TeamTaught Session at ClickerExpo 2019.

We overcomplicate things in the training world sometimes. I don’t think many trainers are purely free shapers; most of us use a variety of techniques, because our goal is to help animals succeed. There is no merit in suggesting that one technique should always be used; some techniques should be combined if it will help the learner.

Shaping has become such a hot topic lately that we have decided to include it in a new TeamTaught Session at ClickerExpo 2019. The Session will be an in-depth discussion among at least five faculty members—maybe I’ll see you at one of those Sessions!

Happy Training,


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