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What is Microshaping, Anyway?

This month I'm welcoming a guest author to the Letter from Karen, British clicker training innovator Kay Laurence. Please enjoy this wonderful discussion of what Kay has dubbed "microshaping."—Karen Pryor

snowy dog

Focus on the student and the process

Someone recently asked me how the term "microshaping" developed, and what, exactly, it means. I think I probably originated that term some years ago. At that time, it rather alarmed me that much of the shaping I was witnessing was focused on achieving the end behavior, rather than on the learner or on the teaching process—in my opinion, the more important elements.

Folks became fixated on getting the dog to put a paw on its face/walk backward/retrieve an object/stop on a mat, etc. As humans, we tend to focus on our personal needs; trainers were not seeing what was really happening, aside from getting the behavior they wanted.

Dogs could keep up with this agenda only if they were very, very skilled at puzzle solving, were in the top 10% of bright souls who could cope with lots of unreinforced trials, and/or had oodles of stamina and creativity with which to "find" the solutions.

My Gordon setters could check off some of those boxes—they are very creative, but poor at remembering their successes, and easily distracted with jackpots. My collies lack creativity and would prefer to work with clear guidance (targeting). But, both breeds have demonstrated a very high sensitivity to the lack of success—which to them is "no click." And, I'm a good shaper!

Bad shaping leads to confused dogs, no matter how talented the dogs. Even with resilient dogs and good shaping, dogs take failure seriously.

It rather alarmed me that much of the shaping I was witnessing was focused on achieving the end behavior.

Why we need microshaping

Microshaping evolved to serve two purposes:

1. The first purpose was to make the operator (clicker trainer) observe the quantity of behaviors that were offered without reinforcement. These behaviors can be as minor as changing balance, a shift of weight, deep sighs, a flick of the tail, blowing of the lips (a Gordon favorite), or lowering the head an inch. All of these are offered behaviors with no click, no information.

Many videos and training sessions I witnessed that were considered "good shaping" at that time demonstrated an average 70% failure rate of offered behaviors to successful behaviors. In other words, only 30% of the offered behaviors were clicked.

Aacck! I would not want to be on the receiving end of that program!

2. Secondly, I wanted to invest time in a building, or acquisition, process that resulted in very solid behaviors that needed almost no practice schedules, contained skills pertinent to the behaviors, and most importantly, only contained the knowledge of the perfect execution of that behavior.

I wanted to invest time in a building, or acquisition, process that resulted in very solid behaviors.

An example of this process would be teaching a dog to walk backward, away from the handler, in a straight line. This is a traditional freestyle move, but is also useful for teaching mobility, self awareness, and coordination. (Freestyle is an excellent ground for developing great clicker trainers, and great clicker dogs.)

In workshops and seminars, I was seeing dogs struggling to achieve a top quality, flowing, balanced movement as they moved backward. Often the behavior was taught with pressure, causing dogs to hunch and dodge backward in avoidance. It also exaggerated sideways movement, since the dogs were seeking to move out of the way, which they normally do sideways. I saw many dogs that had been shaped to move backward by stepping back with the front feet—which is the easier movement for the trainer to see. Again, there were some very weird actions, lots of over lifting of the front paws, kinked back heads, hunched neck and shoulders, and more. All of these odd actions were a result of the trainer's overzealous desire to achieve backward movement.

Movement and patterns that work

I spent some time looking at dogs that achieved a pleasant looking movement, filled with comfort, strength, and obvious enjoyment. The movements of these dogs mostly originated from self taught behaviors. Throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball...demands that resulted in...A Thrown Ball! Yay!!

So, with or without the owner's understanding, the dog's movements eventually prompted the owner to throw. Those same movements, sporadically reinforced by those throws, settled into repeated patterns. However, since the dog was generating the moves spontaneously, the moves had a smoothness and energy that human-shaped behavior often lacks.

Those dogs were some really great movers!

So I began to shape the next generation of dogs with the focus on relaxed carriage, flowing movements, confidence, and attaining distance.

So I began to shape the next generation of dogs with the focus on relaxed carriage, flowing movements, confidence, and attaining distance. Right at the outset I worked on muscle patterns, rather than on the behavior. I developed a physique that would relieve all stress when executing the movement, and I taught in "micro" slices to develop a fixed pattern action that, with repetition, would produce the desired final behavior.

I have one collie that can't stop backing once cued, but otherwise has some great actions that require absolutely minimal regular training. Microshaping built a dog that opens the movement with a back leg action, not a front leg action, and has no history of anything else but the correct fixed pattern action. So, given the cue "backing" there is only one outcome.

The end result

Microshaping is not a skill for the beginner clicker trainer, and does require us to deepen our understanding of building behaviors. We need to keep slicing extremely fine layers that serve the two purposes:

1. Building only the desired actions/behaviors/skills

2. Working with a 95-100% rate of reinforcement on offered behaviors. The goal is to build tremendously confident and skilled dogs, never damaging even the most sensitive dog's desire to learn.

More resources—start practicing!

If this answer falls short, more detailed explanation can be found in my book, Clicker Intermediate Trainer: Level 3. There is also ClickFlick video version available. If you have been to Jesús Rosales-Ruiz' lectures, he uses this process regularly to demonstrate shaping, with a collie paw tapping a green die. To inspire the shaping-obsessed folk (like me!), I have a whole book on shaping challenges, building FPA, and other cool stuff. (Now taking orders in the US for Learning Games, available from KPCT in February.)

Keep in mind that I have done the difficult part, breaking down the behaviors into the steps and skills needed for the desired outcomes—all you have to do is work through the recipes!


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.

What is Microshaping, Anyway?

So this is what microshaping is.  I am also guilty of not clicking offered behaviors.  I guess it will come with more practise.


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