Before I begin any training session, I have a set goal in mind. I plan what I am going to and how I am going to break down the final behavior into tiny increments. I mark/click and reward those tiny increments as we move towards that final goal. Notice I said we. Melissa and I are a team. We are working together to get towards a final goal behavior. I communicate to her that she is moving towards that goal in tiny increments by clicking and treating. This is the shaping game. Clicking/treating tiny increments of the goal behavior is a way for me to communicate to Melissa what I want her to do. Shaping keeps Melissa motivated to work, she is excited, she becomes an active member of the team that she and I have developed.
The goal for our new trick is for Melissa to depress the lever on a gumball machine with her paw.
Before I bring Melissa into the room where we will have our training session, I gather my clicker, my treats and the gumball machine which is filled with dry kibble. Melissa rarely gets dry kibble, it is a novelty to her, it is very rewarding. For Melissa it is a good choice to use as a reinforcement. If she did not like dry kibble I would use another treat to put inside the gumball machine that would be rewarding to Melissa once she learned how to depress the lever. The first steps of my shaping plan is for Melissa to interact with the gumball machine by looking at it, by moving towards it etc. I will use tiny pieces of cheese to reward Melissa for these first steps, and in the event that she does use her paw and it hits the lever, the machine is filled and ready to dispense the novel and very rewarding treats.
I bring Melissa into the training area. She does a few nose touches to the palm of my hand, a sit and perhaps a down. Melissa is now in 'working mode'. She is focused on me and ready to engage in an activity with me.
I place the gumball machine on the ground and I wait. Melissa understands the shaping game, she immediately moves towards this new object. I click and toss the treat about a foot away from the machine, by doing so I am resetting her for the next try. She moves away from the machine to get the treat, and then she moves back towards it. Click/treat, repeat.
Next I wait for her to move closer, click treat, repeat another rep or two. Then I wait for her to touch the machine. I want her to interact with it, at this point I don't care if she touches with her nose or her paw. What I am doing is giving her information each time I click....yes, that is what I want, interact with that object. Perhaps some people will say that only paw touches should be marked right from the beginning. And for some dogs I may agree with this way of thinking. Melissa is only 16 months old and is still rather new to the shaping game. I want to give her as much information as possible, I want to keep her motivated and interacting with the machine, so I will click the first few touches with her nose. But I will then modify my criteria and click for only paw touches and ignore nose touches. Either way, we are not forcing our dogs to do anything. They are willing team members playing the shaping game with us!! The first few times Melissa does indeed pokes at the machine with her nose, she got clicked and treated. I have now switched to feeding her on the dispensing tray of the machine. She understands after only a few reps that it is this machine sitting on the floor that we are playing with so I have now changed to where I am placing my treats. Again it depends on the dog, where they are in their level of training, and what your plan is for getting to that final goal behavior.
Next I wait for her to interact with a paw. I click the slightest paw movement.
I gradually shaped for a higher paw raise. At this point I did not care which paw, right or left, that Melissa used. Again, perhaps my training criteria could be a bit clearer, but I wanted Melissa to stay in the game. For her to stay motivated at this point, I needed to reward frequently and for the tiniest of increments closer to the final goal. Higher paw touches is what I chose to click/treat.
You can see in these photos that Melissa has silly Borzoi ears, they are flopping every which way.....a sign she is alert and excited. I so enjoy watching her play the shaping game!!
One time Melissa poked at the machine with her paw so hard that it fell over. No big deal, I just set it upright. It isn't the behavior I wanted, but there is no need to reprimand, I just wait for her to lift her paw again and clicked for a bit more of a gentler touch.
I then began to click and treat for paw touches closer to the lever.
Melissa hit the lever and she got a jackpot, the kibble came tumbling out!!
It took two 2 minute training sessions, for Melissa to get to our final goal behavior: depressing the lever with her paw. Next I will put this behavior on a verbal cue which will be 'time to eat'. I will add this cue as I am placing the gumball machine on the ground and eventually will have her sit a distance away and then give the cue.
I keep training sessions short, perhaps 8 to 10 treats are in my hand, and I stop when those are gone. I let Melissa know that each training session is over with a 'we're done' as I move my hands over each other. I will then review what progress we made in that session. Did Melissa move a tiny towards the final goal? If not, how can I break the behaviors into even tiny segments so she is successful. Shaping is fun, it makes us better observers of our dog's every movement and is a good game to play indoors on snowy days.
In combination with outdoor exercise and interactive toys adolescent Melissa is ready to settle on the couch for a nap...while I have a chance to develop another shaping plan for our next trick! Thanks to Lessa Shear for taking the photos!