Over the last couple of days I talked about how a training method affects how dogs think and learn, and I looked in depth at social facilitation, molding, luring, and targeting. Today I’ll look at the pros and cons of two more dog-friendly methods of getting behavior — capturing and shaping — and I’ll suggest a realistic strategy for choosing the best method for achieving your training goals.
Capturing is usually the first “hands off” training technique tried by most new clicker trainers. The concept is incredibly simple: When the dog does what you want, click and reinforce it!
Capturing is necessarily limited to behaviors that occur naturally in their finished form. It’s rather unlikely that the average dog is going to offer a full set of weaves the first (or second or third or…) time he sees the poles, but it’s a pretty good bet that he’s going to sit, lie down, or bark at some point.
It’s also limited to behaviors that occur with enough frequency that the dog can figure out a pattern to the click. It seems obvious to us what we’re clicking, but the dog may not be focused on that particular aspect — or any aspect — of his behavior at that moment. It’s only with consistent capturing of that behavior that he can figure out the common denominator of each clicked situation.
Like the Boy Scouts of America, the motto of any trainer who wants to capture behavior should be “Be Prepared!” Behavior happens quickly, and if you aren’t ready, an opportunity to catch it can be missed. This doesn’t mean you have to follow your dog around, clicker in hand, twenty four hours a day. Instead, identify the times that the behavior most commonly occurs or the events that generally precede the behavior and be ready to capture the behavior then. For example, to capture a bow, catch your dog when he is stretching after waking from a nap.
Although capturing is limited to the frequently-occurring behaviors included in a dog’s personal repertoire, it ranks fairly high on problem-solving ability because the click is the only information given. The dog must experiment to work out what he can do to earn a reinforcer. Happily, nearly all of the behaviors desired by pet owners occur frequently enough to be captured. It’s quite easy to teach a complete beginner’s class — even a class of pet owners with no desire to become trainers — using only capturing.
Another pro to capturing is that it teaches new trainers to anticipate behavior and to see the smaller responses that occur just before the desired behavior. This, of course, is the first step on the road to shaping.
Shaping is sometimes portrayed as the Holy Grail of clicker trainers. Some go so far as to say any method other than shaping isn’t real clicker training. Its perceived complexities terrify neophytes and some experts. Some are too intimidated to try. Others, discouraged by their first fumbling attempts, decide it isn’t worth the effort. Others follow the instructions but find their dogs didn’t read the same manual. What, then, is so great about shaping? In a word, power. Unlimited power.
Before I cover the pros and cons of shaping, let’s talk more about what it is. Shaping is another term for successive approximation. Complex tasks are broken into achievable chunks, and then taught bit by bit. Shaping comes in two “flavors.”
In the first, commonly called free-shaping, the trainer creates a new behavior “from scratch.” For example, to shape a spin, the trainer might start with a glance to the right. Then a slightly larger movement of the chin to the right. Then a subtle shift of weight. Then the lifting of the front left paw. And so on.
The second type of shaping builds on an existing behavior. This is how elements such as distance, duration, and distractions are incrementally added. For example, once that competition sit is on cue, duration is added gradually… half a second, one second, two seconds, four seconds, seven seconds, ten seconds, and so on.
Although I speak of two flavors of shaping, they are really applications of the same method. Shaping is shaping. However, beginners often find using shaping to add elements to an existing behavior is easier than free-shaping a brand new behavior. Using successive approximation to add distance or duration is a great way for trainers to experiment and get comfortable with the technique and to begin to hone their observation skills. However, the real power of shaping, and its major benefits, come from free-shaping.
Shaping is, by far, the most flexible training method available. It is limited solely by the animal’s ability and the trainer’s skill. You can’t teach a dog to fly, but if you had the skill, you could teach him to do a solo freestyle routine cued by the music. For an experienced dog and trainer team, shaping is as fast as targeting, and its precision absolutely can’t be matched.
The key, however, is experienced. Shaping isn’t fast for new shapers or inexperienced animals. It takes skill to break behavior into responses so tiny that your dog can be consistently correct, even when you increase criteria. It takes skill to see subtle nuances of behavior and to anticipate them well enough to time your click perfectly. For the dog, it takes a lot of brain power to work out what a click means (especially if the click is less-than-perfectly timed). It takes creativity and a willingness to experiment and make mistakes. If the dog or the trainer doesn’t understand the method, isn’t comfortable experimenting, or isn’t a good problem-solver, free-shaping can be very frustrating.
Despite these significant challenges, do I think it’s worth the effort to learn to shape? Yes, for most anyone interested in truly learning to train, I do. So often, I see clicker trainers stick to luring and cheat themselves out of possibilities they truly can’t imagine.
Clicker trainer Sue Ailsby has a Portuguese Water Dog named Scuba who has been extensively free-shaped. Watching Sue shape a new behavior is a jaw-droppingly amazing experience. It takes just one or two clicks at each criterion for Scuba to catch on, so she learns at seemingly light-speed. It’s as close to pure communication as training can possibly be. Until you see it, however, you simply can’t conceive of it. Not really.
Shaping is unlimited possibilities.
So which should you choose?
Each of the six dog-friendly methods of getting behavior is a legitimate technique. All have pros and cons. None are suitable for every trainer, every animal, and every situation.
I firmly believe that a good trainer should understand and be able to use ALL of the methods. Each method affects the dog just a little differently, and so a little experience with each method, particularly in the formative first 16 weeks of life, will create more neural pathways in his brain and give you more choices in your training toolbox.
Choosing the right method for most situations depends on several factors which were covered in part one of this article. Briefly, they are:
- How many behaviors will this dog need to learn?
- How quickly do I need to train the behaviors?
- How precise are the behaviors?
- How skilled is the primary trainer?
- How interested in training is the trainer?
- How experienced is the dog in each method?
- Will the dog need to “think on his feet,” or will he primarily respond to well-rehearsed cues?
Even if you review this list and determine that one particular method is right for you and your dog, there still may be times where that method simply isn’t the right choice in a specific situation.
I was in the audience at a Clicker Expo watching one of the strongest proponents of shaping do a demo. She asked for a volunteer from the audience, and the dog that was brought up was wildly distracted. She used a lure to refocus him and to get him generally oriented to what she wanted to do, and then she switched to shaping.
There was NOTHING wrong with using that lure. It was absolutely the right choice in the situation. She had seconds to get the dog focused in an extraordinarily distracting situation. She also needed to get him oriented to the type of behavior she wanted — she didn’t have time to freeshape from “nothing” a possible shaping-unsavvy dog.
Sometimes the best solution is to use a combination of methods. Use a lure to get the dog focused on the general type of behavior you want to work on, and then free-shape. Set up your environment in a way that your dog can’t help but succeed — a type of molding — and then capture what you want. Stretch your imagination and your boundaries!
No matter which method you choose, remember that training is just a tool we use to deepen our communication and relationship with our dogs. Don’t get so focused on the result that you forget to enjoy the journey. Clicker training is the road less traveled, and that makes all the difference!