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Clicking the Show Dog

This article is the first of a series that appeared in the American Kennel Club Gazette. The whole collection was published as a book, Click to Win, in fall 2001.

"Shaping" is a new technique for turning show dogs into winners. My friend Barbara loves Great Danes and enjoys showing her dogs but her new Great Dane, Heather, was frustrating her. Barbara showed Heather in her first puppy class at 8 months. When the judge leaned over to touch the dog, Heather ran behind Barbara and wouldn't let the man near her. Heather disqualified herself because of her seemingly poor temperament. She was terrified of strangers. It looked as if Heather's show career was over before it had begun.

Barbara approached me with this problem. I'm a behavioral biologist, and an author of books and articles on how to shape behavior with positive reinforcements. 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. Lately many dog trainers have begun applying this technique - called operant conditioning - to canine tasks and sports.

To shape behavior rapidly and effectively you must use a distinct signal, such as a touch or a noise, that marks the instant the right action occurs. After the signal the animal is given something it likes, such as praise, petting, toys or food.

Although praise and food conveys to the animal that you're pleased, the marker signal is actually more important because it tells the animal exactly what it was doing that earned it the treat. That information makes it both possible and likely the animal will do the right thing again. Dolphin trainers use a whistle as their marker signal, or 'conditional reinforcer'. Dog trainers seem to have settled on a toy clicker.

How could this help Barbara? Barbara, Heather and I arranged to meet at a dog show, where Barbara had brought Heather just to get her used to the many new sights and sounds. Heather was certainly pretty, and the sights and sounds didn't seem to bother her. She gazed around with the aplomb typical of Danes - until I reached out to pet her. Then she shied like a horse and backed away to the end of her lead.

I had no interest in why Heather behaved this way; my aim was to see if we could get Heather to react in a more appropriate manner. We found a quiet spot, beyond the crowds. I bought some sausage at the hot dog stand on the show grounds (it's always wise to start this process with something truly delicious). Heather ate the sausage slices, but only if Barbara fed them to her (she wouldn't take them from me). I gave Barbara a plastic clicker and showed her how to begin the shaping procedure. Click, then treat. Click, then treat. Teach the dog to expect the treat when it hears the click. Then I had Barbara walk the dog around for a few minutes, clicking whenever Heather appeared to relax.

Barbara took the clicker home. The next day she took Heather to a nearby shopping center. Whenever someone came down the sidewalk towards them, Barbara clicked, then stopped Heather and gave her a treat. Soon Heather was walking calmly toward approaching strangers. Often, of course, peopled wanted to pet Heather. On the third day Barbara began letting people touch Heather on the back. Barbara clicked if Heather stood still. Heather quickly learned to stand still on purpose. From her viewpoint, she had Barbara all figured out: if Heather accepted petting, Barbara clicked and gave a treat every time.

The next weekend Barbara took Heather to the second show of her life. Heather trotted calmly beside Barbara and stood politely while the judge looked at her teeth and felt her legs. Heather won her class. Three weeks later, Heather won a puppy class and beat several adult female Great Danes, earning her first championship points.

A Pleasant Process

It seemed like a miracle. It wasn't. The clicker 'explained' to Heather that she would be 'paid' for letting herself be touched by strangers. She discovered for herself that the process was harmless, even pleasant. The last time I saw Heather (again, at a show) she had dived into a crowd of teenagers and was reveling in being scratched and petted by six at once. Becky's Standard Schnauzer, Dash, had a different problem: She wouldn't keep her ears and tail up. Like Heather, Dash was a very nice-looking bitch, and Becky felt she had great potential; but a Schnauzer with its ears flat and its tail tucked is not a impressive sign. Dash had long since lost interest in squeaky toys; you couldn't fool her into pricking her ears.

Becky got a clicker and taught Dash that click means treat. She then spent five minutes every evening playing with Dash. Every time Dash's ears went up, Becky clicked. A truck went by, the Schnauzer pricked her ears - click, treat.

Dash started pricking her ears on purpose. Soon Becky could wait to click until Dash kept her ears up for two seconds - then three, then five, then wile posed and while moving. Before long, when Dash saw the clicker, her ears when up and stayed there.

Becky shaped Dash's tail carriage in exactly the same way. At first, she gave Dash a click for any tail movement, then for a tail horizontal to the ground, then for a tail a little higher. Dash wagged her tail at first; later, she started trying to lift it on purpose. They worked in five- or 10-minute sessions, first at home, then in parks, then in busy places among other dogs and people.

Becky also taught Dash to self-stack. First she clicked for the back feet, until Dash always stopped with her feet in the right place. Then Becky 'added' the front feet, later the head position. Dash preferred stacking herself to being pushed and pulled about. Dash learned to hold her pose like a model - even while a judge felt her coat and opened her mouth. She quickly learned she could rely on Becky to 'pay' her for the job. Now, six months after the first click, Dash shines with pride and confidence. Dash and Becky have won Best of Breed or Best of Opposite Sex at all four shows they've been in.

Trying It Yourself

Although operant conditioning is different from conventional training, it is not particularly difficult. In fact, pet owners with no traditional dog training experience are often better at it than seasoned professionals. Try it for yourself. You don't need a clicker: Rattle the change in your pocket, clink a spoon on a glass or cluck with your tongue to mark the instant you see a behavior in your dog that you want to strengthen. (It's best to save your voice for praise and affection; to dogs, a brief, unusual sound is a much clearer behavior marker than a spoken word.) Try to shape a simple task such as spin, roll over or shut the door. Don't worry about how the dog 'feels'; concentrate on what behavior you want to elicit from the dog. And remember to have fun! Shaping is a great game. In my next column I'll talk about using shaping to improve your dog's gait.

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

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