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Shaping Your Way to Success

"I can train ANY behavior that the animal is physically and mentally capable of doing."
—Keller Breland

Marian Breland Bailey's first husband, Keller Breland, left behind this great quote, which I lived by as an oceanarium trainer. If the penguin could jump across the water, we could train it to jump through a hoop. If the otter could turn a doorknob with its clever paws we could train it to raise a flag or open a box. If the sea lion could deliberately move its whiskers we could train it to "smile." If the octopus could squirt water out its siphon we could train it to make a fountain in the air (and we did).

Dog owners and trainers don't necessarily think that way, though. Go to any dog show and you'll see people using squeakers and other toys to stimulate pricked ears and a lively expression. Why not just train the dog to prick its ears and make a pretty face on cue? You'll see people waving and tempting with food, without actually giving it (they call this baiting) to make the dog look lively as the judge walks by. Dogs get bored with that. You'll see people physically hauling upward on the leash to keep the dog's head elevated. Why not teach the dog to maintain the head position you want? You'll see people manually arranging the dog's feet and then correcting the dog if it dares move. Why not teach the dog to pose itself?

Trouble is, when you try to elicit a reaction with some kind of stimulus, over and over, the animal habituates to the stimulus, it stops being meaningful, and you actually get less of the behavior rather than more. When you use physical force or manipulation you may get compliance but you also build resistance; and if the manipulation is uncomfortable, you build resentment and avoidance.

And Keller was right; there are a host of small behaviors that are impossible to teach and maintain by correction, prompting, or force, but easy to train by shaping and positive reinforcement. That includes everything you want the dog to do in the show ring, including smiling at the judge. New! Download Karen Pryor's Click to Win: Clicker Training for the Show Ring, available chapter by chapter.

Here are a couple of easy behaviors you can shape:

Teach your dog to lick its lips on cue: Capture spontaneous licks—before dinner, or when expecting a treat—with a click, and a different treat. Repeat over several sessions, in the same room and at the same time of day. When the dog recognizes the situation and the lick begins to appear without prompting with food, capture and reinforce that, and establish a visual cue—a selected hand gesture, maybe. Add in a joke question, and the dog can answer by licking its chops.

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Teach your dog to prick its ears on cue: Make an unusual sound (squeeze a squeaker once) and capture the pricked ears with a click, treat. Repeat four or five times. Show the sound maker but don't squeeze it, click if the dog pricks its ears even slightly at the sight of the toy, repeat, clicking strong moves and skipping weak moves of the ears. Extend the duration of the pricked ears by shaping, switch the cue to a raised finger, practice in different locations and with distractions.

Correct a bad tail carriage: Here's a tougher show ring shaping job, but it's by no means impossible—and certainly shaping conscious tail control is better than the owner's surgical solution which is painful, irreversible, and also, of course, illegal. A question came from instructor and handler Vicky Toshach:

"I'm having a tough time training a bearded collie not to display a gay tail while being gaited in the ring. [Editor's note: a "gay tail" is a tail that recurves over the dog's back instead of staying at the preferred angle pointing up or backwards.] I had a Parson Russell that had a gay tail when standing but I was able to fix this with clicker training. It was easier because she was standing still and I just posed the tail where I wanted and clicked. She eventually learned that when she heard the word stand, it also meant to fix her tail! However, with my client's bearded collie, the tail is fine when standing, it's when she is trotting that the tail curls up over her back. One of the methods I tried was using a target stick. I figured that if she was focused on something, she wouldn't be as relaxed and therefore the tail would stay normal. It helped a bit, but still not enough. The owner was contemplating to cut the tendons to the tail. I would sure like to see that avoided."

Here's the shaping recipe I gave to Vicky. There are multiple steps here, but it's all done in brief sessions with a high rate of reinforcement, so it should go fast and be fun. I have personally re-set more than a few show-dog tails with this recipe, including some collies.

Teach the dog to move her tail deliberately, at a standstill. You can use a target stick and touch the tail gently and try to have her move her tail away from the touch. Start by asking the dog to move the tail left or right (not up or down, that's harder) away from the touch.

Just moving the tail to the left or right requires the dog to do something consciously that dogs usually do unconsciously. In fact, as soon as the dog discovers that tail moving is the game, the first move will be to wag the tail; it's the only thing they know how to do on purpose. Click that! Then work on just one move, away from the target stick—or, free-shape a move one side, and then the other, without the target; your choice. That way you don't have to fade the target.

When the dog can move the tail consciously, then you can use the target to teach "lower your tail" and "raise your tail." Do this from standing still. Even if you don't want an overly raised or "gay" tail you should teach the dog to raise the tail for a click as well as lower it. That helps the dog become aware of how it feels to deliberately manage your tail: it must be, for them, sort of like for you trying to learn to wiggle your ears or cross your eyes. First you need to become aware of the muscles that do that.

Now put "raise" and "lower" the tail on a verbal cue and fade out the target completely if you have been using one.

Now, with someone else leading the dog (and feeding the treats) you introduce the target again as a prompt, for the first couple of clicks, and teach raising and lowering the tail ON CUE at a walk with the clicker. This sounds like a lot of trouble but we're talking one or two minute sessions, ten or twenty clicks per session, and in two sessions the dog should have it figured out, i.e., learned the cue and learned how to address the necessary muscles to give a visible response.

You do not need to worry about how much the tail is raised or lowered, in fact it's better if you don't. Just click any clear movement without trying to shape a strong movement. You are teaching the dog to make the tail move up or down on cue, NOT to hold it in some particular position. You are literally teaching the dog to think about its tail, and direct its movements consciously, which will be very interesting for the dog.

The final stage is to have someone else gait the dog—slowly at first—while the trainer asks for "low tail" if/when the tail starts to go up and over the back. Then click the teeniest effort to move the tail down, even if it's crooked or waving. Stop and jackpot, and try again. If the dog is showing confidence you can start clicking for approaches to the angle you like best.

The "gay" carriage may just be a habit, but also there may be anatomical reasons why the tail goes up and over the back at an extended trot. In either case it is wise to work by inches and in short sessions. Using rarely used muscles is tiring and the dog could develop a lame tail! Then it would begin to dislike this work and start avoiding it. So follow each session with some fun clicker games or tug or some other play.

Another tip: space out the sessions by three days if you can! In my experience a much-too-long horseback ride or some other unusual exertion on Sunday makes me feel stiff on Monday but MUCH stiffer on Tuesday. If you think for any reason this is hard for the dog, once you get the behavior, resist the temptation to show off and gait the dog over and over with the tail "just right." Wait till the third day to try again! The muscles will get stronger with use.

This is a delightful clicker exercise because it requires free-shaping and good cueing work and so is a rewarding challenge and experience for dog and owner too.

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.


I would like to recommend Click to Win for all interested in showing their dog. The techniques helped me/us a lot. I used to show my dogs with little enthusiasm, hunts and field trials being our main joy. But we are breeders, so we show our dogs too. Then I found clickertraining. And this book, so I started training my 4 year old female to gait and stack. Actually working with the dog to get her to show herself off increased my enjoyment of shows (I was suddenly showing something my dog could do, not just how she looked) and (of course) it made my dog suddenly find the whole thing a lot more fun. Bottom line: in her class she went from getting second prizes to 1 first prize/best in class (general show in February) and on to 1 prize with a CQ (Certificate-quality)(breed specific show in May) - and note this: I started clicking for gait and stack in January!
I suddenly find myself doing shows not from obligation, but for fun...and as for my dog...well, let the comment from the judge in February speak for her: "yes! that is what I want to see...a dog that is wagging like crazy from it gets into the ring until it leaves!"
Clicks to Karen for this ;o)

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