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How Shaping Develops Learning

Editor's note: The word "shaping" is scientific slang for building a particular behavior by using a series of small steps to achieve it. Shaping allows you to create behavior from scratch without physical control or corrections, but rather by drawing on your animal's natural ability to learn. If you're new to shaping, you might want to read an introduction to shaping first, as well as Karen Pryor's Ten Laws of Shaping.
smiling dog

Reading dogs' minds, evaluating their memories

Free shaping sessions give us a window into the thought process of learners. We can see how learners make choices toward solutions, and we can see when they have run out of ideas.

If I watch a dog shaping, I can notice its ability to hold a thought. A dog may be shaping with an object and move away to collect the food. In doing so, the object moves out of sight. Some dogs are very aware of the object and will turn back toward it as they eat; others get entirely immersed in the "mmm, food" moment and completely forget the object. The forgetful dogs often emerge from the moment to look at the trainer with the precious, "I know I was doing something, but whatever it was has completely slipped my mind now" face. The uniquely canine skill of independently moving each eyebrow often gets triggered by a "Where was I...?" moment, easy to observe with the tan eyebrow of the Gordon setters.

Holding success

Dogs' ability to "hold the success" in their minds during eating gets stronger as the reinforcement history increases. The more they get reinforced for touching the brick, the quicker they return to it after eating. In fact, some dogs return to it while eating—I use this as a measure of secure knowledge of that criteria, and an indication of readiness to move the criteria up. Where you place the food has very serious implications for the progression and pace of the lesson. It lets you develop the memory skills or push the learning beyond the capacity of the learner.

More than what we asked for

Free shaping sessions give us a window into the thought process of learners.

An observation I make regularly during most shaping sessions, whether it is a dog or a person in the shaping puzzle, is the process of "going through the click." As an example, sometimes we play the table game Genabacab, with the trainer shaping the learner to touch a specific object. The trainer has the correct timing, clicking the finger as it makes the lightest touch with the object, but the dog continues to push or roll or pick up the object. In another example, while shaping a dog to place a paw on a cone or step on the first tread of a staircase, the dog goes through the click to push the cone or run up the staircase. In nearly all examples, neither the trainer nor the learner is a beginner in clicker training. What they are doing is demonstrating their understanding of "click marks the behavior" by completing the behavior.

If we question the trainer, we know that the dog understands that "what he gets clicked for is what is correct." So why continue on? For both the dog and the trainer, the click is not ending the behavior; it seems to be marking the intended behavior.

If we leave the learner to progress the behavior, it gets stronger—a larger push, a faster run up the stairs—demonstrating that what the learner associated with the click is not what the trainer intended.

When learners offer "gross" behaviors, we are obliged as shapers to refine our teaching. If the gross behavior is not the desired solution, we can come to a frustratingly quick end of the session.

Many mini steps

Very often we use one behavior in a short form to capture another behavior. Hundreds of behaviors are mini versions of larger behaviors where the click has been used as a scalpel to halt progression. A dog lifting a paw to touch a cone is the beginning of a wave, a dog sinking its shoulders to lie down is the beginning of a bow, a finger touch to an object is the opening to push, roll, flick, pick up, or rotate that object. Miniscule behaviors allow us to change direction or develop at a different pace; the ability to freeze the small behaviors allows the learner to listen with greater precision.

The ability to freeze the small behaviors allows the learner to listen with greater precision.

When you begin to teach the learner to listen to the click, the reward delivery must interrupt the progress through to the gross behavior. For the dog intent on whacking an object across the room, an early click, without any time delay to deliver the food behind the dog, halts unwanted progress.

The reward ends the behavior, not the click.

Through the human (slow) eye, it will seem as if the food is being thrown as the click happens and this is not a problem for the first handful of clicks. As the dog hears the click it will freeze if it sees out of the corner of its eye the delivery hand moving fast to throw the food away. The first few times the dog may go through the click and ignore the hand movement, but soon you see the dog watching the delivery hand as it approaches the object. Then, the next test is a one second delay between click and delivery to see if the momentum is stopped on the click.

I prefer to deliver the food a few paces away from the behavior in order to set the dog up at the start of the movement again. This allows me to monitor similar movement and compare the progress.

Quince, the star, learns to hold the moment

At a past ClickerExpo, I held a micro shaping workshop and my wonderful learner was a 7-month-old rough collie, Quince. The objective was to teach him to place his front feet on the first step of the four steps leading to the speaker's platform. This is an essential behavior for a guiding dog, one who will stop at this point waiting for a cue from the handler to progress on the staircase. Quince recognized his moment of fame and wanted "The Stage." Staircases were invisible to him, let alone the first step! On approach to the stage he heard the click and flew the rest of the way toward my lap (7 months old and he hadn't worked out that he had grown!).

If you have been teaching a dog to come toward you for delivery from your hand when they hear the click, this can invite a surge in that direction on the click. On the click you can take the food to the dog in situ, but this is not quick enough to prevent a "go through" on the click, where the click reinforces intent. If you try to speed up the direct delivery to the dog, be very careful that you don't unduly alarm the dog, as that action will become associated with the click.

With Quince I had to make a very large movement in throwing food behind him, even before I clicked again, to develop his awareness of my food-delivery movement. This was quite a new concept to him. It took just a few repetitions, and I re-introduced the click as he approached the staircase. I was using a visual click to interrupt the behavior, but also timing this with the audible click.

At 7 months old he was not highly sensitive to what his body was doing, but instead was going through life with zero finesse, driven by the fuel known as "intent." Kent still reverts to that mode. His intent is to say hello passionately, and his awareness of my preferred way of achieving this often evaporates in the moment, leaving only "intent."

In about four one-minute sessions, we successfully shaped Quince to place his front feet on the staircase. His body was still aquiver with the intent of the Flying Stage Entrance, but he was holding control for a second or two after the click. It was an excellent exercise for his young mind—not only to take greater notice of the exact moment of the click and what he was doing at that moment, but also to hold the moment between the click and food delivery.

It was an excellent exercise for his young mind—not only to take greater notice of the exact moment of the click and what he was doing at that moment, but also to hold the moment between the click and food delivery.

Shaping, a life lesson

I firmly believe that the greatest benefit of shaping is developing the learner. Shaping is not simply a training method to acquire behaviors that don't respond to luring. Learning to be shaped is like learning the necessary skills for what life throws at you—and can be especially important for 7-month-old boys!

For those who become intent-clicked, we need to find different strategies to freeze the moment. The same diversion with the delivery can be employed, but this only works if the learner is highly motivated to want the reward. I have been wicked and set up a system where the learner has to catch the reward before I drop it into a jar, or give it to another person first. This is somewhat or slightly punishing, but it focuses the mind on hearing the click. Be quick to respond to collect the reward, or else it is gone.

Playing devil's advocate: clicking an intent can be good

On the other hand...

A little voice that sounds ever so like my dog Mabel saying, "Hang on a minute..." points out, "But clicking an intent could be useful." I know when I first started shaping with Mabel I would put out several interesting objects to stimulate her imagination (she was 9 months old and entirely self-focused). I'd click when she looked at a particular object, she would collect her food and then travel straight over to that object. Asking her for a paw wave, and then clicking when she looked at the stool, would ensure that she moved toward the stool to tap it.

I am as certain as I can be of the Gordon setter thought process, and believe that what she is looking at is what she is thinking about. It is not exactly clicking her intent to do a particular process on arrival, but we are able to jump many steps in the shaping.

I'm sure many of you have a similar understanding with your dog. I think the dogs are better at understanding our intentions for them than the other way around, but it is still an area I would like to explore.

Can we use a different marker to confirm intent?

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from Teaching Dogs magazine.
About the author
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Kay Laurence is the founder of Learning About Dogs; author of many books, including the Clicker Trainers Course series; and a member of the ClickerExpo Faculty.

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