Posts in Training Tips

Dog-friendly methods of getting behavior, part 3

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!

Dog-friendly methods of getting behavior, part 2

This article is longer than I remembered, so today I’m going to look in depth at four of the dog-friendly methods of getting behavior: social facilitation, molding, luring, and targeting. I’ll finish the others up tomorrow! But first, I heard from Tennyson’s breeder:

The kids are great – all over 22 lbs now (Yellow is over 24!). They’ve been going out for some playgroups with camp dogs and went to Puppy K on Wednesday night. Realized I haven’t done anything on-leash with them (oops) so that is probably something that will need more work. I’ve definitely noticed they are in a “fear period”. All are jumpier around noises and things that didn’t bother them before. I’m making sure nothing is too scary and using lots of jolly talk and treats. They recover very quickly which makes me hopeful that I’ve done adequate socialization before the fear period started!

Heart checks are on Wednesday. Fingers crossed, everyone!

Instinct, allelomimetic behavior, mimicry, social facilitation

In these closely-related methods of getting behavior, you’re taking advantage of an instinctive desire to do what others are doing to get what you want. Dogs are not known as mimickers. You cannot, for example, reliably have one dog demonstrate a perfect finish, and then expect the other dogs in the class to copy it. Yet, they still have a tendency to repeat some natural — “untrained” — behaviors that other dogs do.

For example, if one dog in a group begins to bark, the others frequently bark. If one gets up and goes outside, the others often follow. If you signal a recall for one, the others may come in as well. Observations at a doggy daycare show this tendency quite clearly. Groups of dogs tend to run, bark, and even lie down to nap at the same time.

Trainers of working dogs have taken advantage of this tendency for generations. It’s common to pair new dogs with older, experienced dogs. Sometimes this pairing is quite literal. Young fox hounds are braced with older hounds so they have no choice but to follow the older dog’s lead. In some kennels, the training of the young hounds is done exclusively by the older dogs.

Trainers with multiple dogs can take advantage of this method for simple, natural behaviors if they have one dog who is already fluent. Cue a recall — or sit or down or other behavior — and reward the dogs who respond. Many dogs will respond just because the other dog did it. And those who don’t may be motivated to figure out why the others are getting reinforced.

Less obviously, allelomimetic behavior may be used to modify the emotional state of the dog. Allelomimetic behavior is “mutual mimicry.” It includes not only “acting like,” but also “feeling like.” And it isn’t limited to dog-dog interactions. Tense handlers have tense dogs. Calm handlers have calm dogs. Households experiencing unexpected acute stress may have dogs exhibiting unprovoked aggression or other stress displacement behavior. Trainers can use this tendency by modeling the calm, focused emotional state they want their dogs to exhibit.

Some real-life examples of social facilitation and other instinctive methods of learning include…

  • A group of daycare dogs sitting quietly when the gate is opened… and new dogs following suit the very first day!
  • Young puppies and adolescent dogs performing—and later repeating—recalls at the dog park because their older playmates respond to the cue.
  • A dog learning behaviors as varied as pushing a box along the floor and walking backwards by copying the behavior of another dog being rewarded for those behaviors.

The final example is the most controversial. Repeated laboratory experiments have concluded that dogs are not capable of learning by observation. However the training world is filled with anecdotal evidence disputing that. The bottom line is this: Try it. If it works, you’ve found an easy solution ideal for the canine brain. If it doesn’t, simply try something else.


Molding is a method of setting the dog up so that he must perform the behavior. It includes physically compelling behavior or using props. Trainers sometimes use the term “modeling” interchangeably with molding. Technically this is incorrect. Modeling more accurately refers to demonstrating, rather than compelling, a behavior. Examples of molding include standing on a dog’s leash to force him into a down or putting a scrunchie on a dog’s paw to elicit a wave or a “limp.”

Molding has a bad reputation among clicker trainers. Although it includes techniques as innocent as heeling next to a wall to encourage the dog to move in a straight line, trainers, associating the method with force, often dismiss molding entirely. Unfortunately, by doing so they risk ignoring a method that could potentially make learning easier for their pet-owner students.

Some pet owners are not interested in dog training. They don’t want to become good trainers. They aren’t interested in theory. They simply want their dog to obey simple cues and live harmoniously in their homes. For some of these people, molding is both clearer and easier than other methods. If they are successful, and the specific technique they use doesn’t hurt or frighten the dog, why not take advantage of the method?

Of course, the method does have drawbacks. To be used successfully, the compulsion shouldn’t trigger the dog’s opposition reflex. The common techniques of pushing on a dog’s hips to get a sit or stepping on a leash to get a down are poor training choices because the dog’s natural response is to resist. Instead, use the opposition reflex to your advantage. Got a dog who shifts his weight backwards in a show stance? Tug lightly on his tail — and watch him resist the backwards pull by shifting his weight to the fore.

Another common and more accepted use of molding is the use of props — wire guides through the weave poles, a piece of tape on the nose to encourage “hide your eyes,” a channel to force a straight approach on a recall. The problem with these and most other examples of molding is that the props and trainer participation have to be faded from the picture, and that’s not always easy, especially for beginners.

Molding is similar to allelomimetic behavior in that both can be used to effect a change of emotional state. Emotions and physical position — body language — are closely linked. So closely linked, in fact, that scientists have an ongoing argument about which comes first! Regardless, it is possible to change a dog’s emotional state by having him perform behaviors consistent with a different emotion. For example, a dog has trouble maintaining aggressive behavior when he’s wagging his tail.

Amazingly, the change in emotional state occurs even if the dog isn’t volunteering the behavior. In other words, molding the mannerisms associated with a particular emotional state can create that state. If your dog is growling at the end of his leash, try smoothing his hackles and lowering his tail to calm him.


Luring is a hands-off method of guiding the dog through a behavior. Lures are usually food but may be target sticks or anything else the dog will follow. The method is incredibly simple. Using the food or other lure to control the movement of the dog’s head, the dog is maneuvered so that his body performs the desired behavior.

Luring is a very, very popular method of positive training. It’s fast, it’s flexible, and it’s generally easy for beginners. Because it’s hands-off, it’s considered superior to molding. After all, the dog performs the behavior of his own volition!

However, if the dog is focusing on the food, he’s not focusing on what his body is doing. Fading the lure, and making the jump from guided performance to offered performance, is a feat that makes this seemingly simple method far more complex. Some trainers mitigate this problem by turning the lure into a hand signal cueing the behavior. Others keep the dog’s brain more in the game by using a non-food lure, like a target stick. Still, despite these drawbacks, skilled and unskilled trainers are able to use luring to produce a huge variety of behaviors.

If luring is both dog- and trainer-friendly, why do some clicker trainers complain that luring isn’t “true” clicker training? When using the lure, the click is essentially superfluous. The reinforcer can be delivered at the moment the behavior is complete, the conditioned reinforcer imparts no additional information.

But the real problem with luring is that the trainer is doing all of the work. She tells the dog everything he needs to know, helps him through every step — and helping the dog becomes habitual, for both of them. For a hobby trainer, this may not be a problem, but for a serious trainer, a dog who cannot problem-solve, who cannot work his way through a puzzle, is ultimately limiting.

When I hear a trainer complaining that he really can’t see what the big deal about clicker trainer is or that he isn’t getting the mind-blowing results that other claims, almost invariably I find that he is luring almost exclusively.


Targeting is frequently lumped in with luring, and, indeed, the two methods have much in common. But targeting has some unique characteristics and deserves to be considered on its own merits.

Basic targeting — touching a specific spot with a nose or paw — is frequently one of the first behaviors budding clicker trainers ever learn. Some teach their dog to touch the end of a target stick, and then use the stick to lure the dog through future behaviors. Others teach their dogs to touch their finger, their palm, or something like a margarine lid.

For many, this simple touch is all the targeting they do. Others go a step further, generalizing the touch cue to get their dogs to interact with other objects or using targets placed in specific places to move their dogs around. Common uses of targeting include:

  • Transferring the touch to a door or a light switch to teach common service dog behaviors
  • Teaching a dog to pick up an indicated object
  • Touching specific areas of the contact obstacles in agility
  • Teach the dog to “go out” to the ring fence in competition obedience

Some trainers are going even further with their targeting. First, they teach their animals to target with different body parts. They might have separate cues for targeting with each front paw, each back paw, shoulders, hips, nose, chin, and chest! Then they use a series of targets and combinations of these cues to create chains of behaviors.

For example, to teach a dog to “pray,” a trainer could ask the dog to sit, cue him to target his left front paw to the trainer’s knees, cue him to target his right front paw on top of his left paw, and then cue him to target his chin to his chest. Chain it together, and you’ve got a fast route to complex, precise trick!

This method has been used with great success in zoos and aquaria for many years. With exotic animals, it’s often difficult to use a traditional lure because the trainer has limited (if any) contact. Targets give those trainers a limited set of powerful, well-known behaviors that they can call on for a variety of uses.

Uses I have seen include teaching each member of a group of chimpanzees to go to and remain at his own target while the trainer works another member of the group; teaching an elephant to continuously target a spot with his forehead and then, one at a time, targeting a hole in a fence with each foot so his nails and foot pads can be cared for; and teaching a gorilla to grip and hold a bar, which is moved further down a sleeve, so eventually he is presenting his arm for blood draws.

As positives, targeting is both fast and flexible — creative trainers can use targeting to teach most any behavior. But the method does have some drawbacks as well. Unlike luring, the target and trainer participation can’t always be fashioned into a hand signal used to cue the behavior. Trainer participation is high, and it’s not always easy to fade the target and the trainer from the picture, especially for beginners.

Additionally, the level of problem-solving performed by the dog is limited. After the initial targeting is taught, other behaviors are simply combinations of the initial behaviors chained or back-chained together. The trainer shows the animal exactly what is required and continues to show him until he learns the pattern. Since all the information is provided to him, there’s just no need for creative problem solving.


Tomorrow I’ll look at the last two dog-friendly methods of getting behavior: capturing and shaping. Then I’ll tackle once and for all the question of “Which method should I choose?”

Random topic #2 — Dog-friendly methods of getting behavior

I originally posted a version of this article in Teaching Dogs magazine back in 2004. (Wow. Has it really been that long?) Today, a lot of big-name clicker trainers tell people that shaping, capturing, and targeting are the only legitimate methods of getting behavior if you’re clicker training. I vehemently disagree, even if it means I can’t claim the label of “clicker trainer.” (I’m okay with that. Really.)

I firmly believe that there are at least half a dozen dog-friendly methods of getting behavior, and they are all “legitimate.” However, I just as vehemently believe that all methods of getting behavior are not created equal. Depending on your goals, your experience, your dog’s experience, and the situation your in, different methods have different pros and cons.

No method — not even shaping — is right for every trainer, every dog, and every situation.

In this three part series, I examine the most common dog-friendly methods of getting behavior: social facilitation, molding, luring, targeting, capturing, and shaping. Today I’m going to discuss the consequences of choosing a particular method and overview the pros and cons of each. Tomorrow I’ll explore each method in detail and the next day I’ll look at some practical applications.

Examine your goals

Training your dog is similar to teaching a child to work a jigsaw puzzle. The method you choose affects more than the behavior at hand. It affects your dog’s mind, teaching him how to learn, how to approach problems in the future.

When choosing your method, consider not only the immediate behavior but your overall training goals. Is this a pet animal, who will learn only a small handful of behaviors, owned by someone who desires a steady, predictable companion? Or is this a performance dog, who will ultimately have a large repertoire of behaviors, who may need to think on his feet in a working situation, or who might benefit from problem-solving skills?

Some people want a thinking dog. Others very definitely don’t. Neither is right or wrong, just desirable or undesirable for the tasks the dog will be asked to do. Before you choose a training method, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many behaviors will this dog need to learn? The more behaviors you need to teach, the more important it is to teach concepts that can be generally applied to different behaviors.
  • How quickly do I need to train the behaviors? Some methods are faster for beginners than others, but those methods tend to get the same results forever. Other methods start slow but increase in efficiency—bypassing the initially faster methods—as the trainer and dog get more experienced.
  • How precise are the behaviors? Some methods are better-suited to larger, less precise behaviors, and others excel with precise behavior.
  • How skilled is the primary trainer? Some methods are easier for beginners. Some require both physical and mental skill.
  • How interested in training is the trainer? Not everyone who trains a dog aspires to be a “dog trainer.” Some methods require more knowledge and skill than others.
  • How experienced is the dog in each method? The more familiar a dog is with a particular method, the more rapidly he will learn new behaviors taught with that method.
  • Will the dog need to “think on his feet,” or will he primarily respond to well-known, well-rehearsed cues? Some methods teach the dog to wait to be shown what to do. Others require the dog to figure out what’s needed. These habits carry over into their working lives.

Weigh your options

Once you have your answers, compare them against the training methods. All have pros and cons. None is a magic pill perfect for every dog and every trainer. The six most common dog-friendly techniques for getting behavior are described below.

Instinct, allelomimetic behavior, mimicry, social facilitation. While these are each subtly different, they all fall into the category of naturally occurring, “non-training” methods of learning. With this method you’re taking advantage of the dog’s instincts to get the behaviors you want. For example, many dogs will naturally follow another dog. You could, then, pair that dog with a dog who has a terrific off-leash recall to help build a habit of returning when called.

Pros: These natural methods of learning are ideal for the canine brain. They are an excellent choice when working on simple behaviors with a group of dogs.

Cons: Although there are numerous anecdotes of dogs learning trainer-defined skills using these methods, depending on them to teach behaviors that aren’t natural canine behavior is an iffy proposition. Bottom line: if it works, terrific! But don’t count it as a sure thing.

Molding. Molding is physically guiding or otherwise compelling a dog to do a behavior. Pulling up on the dog’s collar while pushing down on his rear is a method of molding a sit. Molding also includes the use of physical props, such as working against a wall to force a straight heel or putting tape on the dog’s face to elicit a paw over the nose.

Pros: Molding is easily understood by humans, and thus it’s very easy for beginners. It’s a quick, easy way to teach large behaviors.

Cons: Though good for large behaviors, molding is limiting for trainers who want more precise or advanced behaviors, and it requires a great deal of trainer participation, which then has to be faded from the picture. The dog has to do very, very little thinking — his body is set up to perform the desired behavior.

Luring. Luring is a hands-off method of guiding the dog through a behavior. Lures are usually food but may be target sticks or anything else the dog will follow. A common method of luring the sit is to hold food in front of the dog’s nose, and then move the food up and back. As the dog’s head follows the food, generally the back end will drop to the floor.

Pros: Luring is fast and flexible, and it’s easy for beginners.

Cons: Lures must be faded early or they become part of the behavior, and properly fading a lure is not easy for beginners. Luring, like molding, requires little mental effort by the dog (even if the lure is a target stick). You’re telling him everything he needs to know, and helping the dog becomes habitual — for both of you.

Targeting. Targeting, at its most basic, is the behavior of touching a specified surface with a particular body part. In practice, targeting is much more flexible. Targets can be used to position an animal, to manipulate its body position, or transferred to a different surface — or used in combination to get incredibly complex behaviors.

Pros: Basic targeting is a simple, easy to teach behavior that can be generalized to different body parts fairly easily. Targeting is fast.

Cons: After the initial behavior is taught, this method requires little mental effort by the dog — the trainer gives the dog all the information he needs. Trainer participation is heavy and must be faded.

Capturing. In capturing, the trainer waits for the dog to offer the behavior, then marks and rewards it. Simple!

Pros: Capturing is easy for beginners if the desired behavior occurs frequently. Even better, it requires mental effort from the dog to figure out why it’s being rewarded.

Cons: Unfortunately, capturing is limited to naturally-occurring behaviors — it’s not likely you can capture a competition-perfect drop on recall. The trainer has to be ready to capture the behavior when it’s offered.

Shaping. Shaping is a technique of training a complex behavior by teaching, and gradually building upon, the behavior’s individual responses. To shape a spin, a trainer might start with just a glance to the left. Then a glance and a weight shift. Then a glance, a weight shift, and movement of a front paw, continuing until the dog is performing a complete spin.

Pros: The clicker makes shaping a powerful technique, enabling incredibly precise behaviors. Its flexibility is unmatched. Once the trainer and dog are skilled with the method, shaping is extremely fast. Best of all, shaping requires significant mental effort, creativity, and problem-solving ability by the dog.

Cons: Shaping requires good observational skills, and until those are developed, shaping can be frustrating to the trainer. It also requires the ability to break behavior into small enough increments that your dog remains consistently successful. If the trainer can’t do this, the dog can get frustrated. Shaping can be frustrating to dogs and trainers who aren’t method-savvy, aren’t comfortable experimenting, or aren’t good problem-solvers. Until the dog and trainer are experienced, especially if they lack a mentor to help them learn the method, progress can be slow.

No perfect solutions

Tomorrow I’ll look at each of these methods in more detail. As you compare your goals with the pros and cons of the different methods, you may find that there are conflicts. Perhaps you have a working dog who needs to problem-solve, but you’re under a strict, tight time-table. Maybe you aspire to a sport like canine freestyle which emphasizes both precision and creativity, but both you and your dog have a learned reliance on lures. Don’t lose faith. I’ll give you specific tips and tricks for solving those problems.

Random topic #1 — Stages of learning

Since I won’t be picking up Miss Tennyson until November 15, I thought I might post some thoughts on a random selection of topics that come up frequently on dog training mailing lists and forums.

I thought today I would talk about the stages of learning. I break my training into four stages.

Stage one

The first stage of learning is when the animal learns the basics about what you want him to do. He learns the behavior and attaches a name — or cue — to it.

In stage one, my training is performed in formal sessions with counted reps. If the behavior is complex, if I’m not getting the results I expect, or if it’s an especially important behavior, I may keep detailed records of the sessions, especially in phase one.

At the beginning of a session, I define the criteria — specifically what I’m looking for — for that set of repetitions. If the dog does what I want, I reinforce the rep. If not, I count the rep as an error and do not reinforce it. If he makes more than a couple of mistakes in a session, I might revisit my criteria to see if I need to make what I want more obvious or easier. I aim for a very high rate of reinforcement for doing what I want. I like to get 10 correct reps in a row before I increase my criteria.

In this stage I shape exactly the behavior I want and add a cue to it. I might work on the behavior in several locations.

Stage two

In the second stage of learning, I am adding additional elements like duration and distance to the behavior, and the dog is working out the boundaries and parameters.

I continue working in formal training sessions in stage two. I have the behavior I want, but now I’m making it harder by adding distance, duration, distractions, and even more locations. If apropriate to the particular behaviour I begin taking it truly “on the road” in this stage.

I am still ignoring mistakes and striving for a high rate of reinforcement. I don’t freak out about mistakes. In fact, I want the dog to experiment and make some mistakes, because that’s how he figures out what I want.

“Is it right if I do this? What about this? How about this?”

The dog should be responding quite well to the cue in this stage, even at the beginning of the stage, and so some trainers begin using physical corrections for mistakes. I don’t. Corrections are absolutely counter to what I want to do during either of these first two stages, because they suppress behavior. I want my dog to experiment so he can figure out exactly what is and isn’t reinforced, but he won’t do that if there’s an unpleasant consequence for doing so.

Stage three

The behaviors I teach can be loosely grouped into two groups — those that are part of a sport and occur only within that sport and those that are common “real life” behaviors.

Real life behaviors, such as a recall or sit or lying on a mat are behaviors that need to be well generalized and will likely be performed outside of “training.” Behaviors that are part of a sport are not likely to be cued outside of training (or competing), per se. I likely wouldn’t ask the dog to do a set of agility weaves at any time except when I was working on agility.

Stage three is the first time I cue “real life” behaviors OUTSIDE of formal sessions. I continue having formal sessions, but I begin to phase the behaviors into use outside of formal training. I might, for example, ask my dog to hold a sit-stay while I carry laundry down the stairs.

The key to the initial phasing of the behavior into real life is that I cue the behavior ONLY when my DOG wants something. Maybe he wants me to open the door to go outside. Maybe he wants his dinner bowl to be put down. Maybe he wants me to throw his bumper. If he does what I ask, I do what he wants. If not, I don’t. This is how to use environmental rewards. I create a clear contingency between doing what I ask and getting what HE wants. This is the stage where my dogs learn that not responding to what I ask has consequences — namely that they don’t get what they want.

For both types of behaviors, stage three is when I begin to sequence or chain behaviors — asking for more work before the payoff. When I first begin sequencing a behavior I try to ask for the new behavior first and follow it with something well known or much loved. That way the dog is learning that although he’s doing more work, it’s easy and fun, and so he stays motivated.

Stage four

When stage three is very, very solid, I’ll begin to use the cue in situations where the dog doesn’t necessarily have anything obvious riding on his response, or I’ll begin asking for longer, harder sequences. This is stage four.

By this point we have thousands of well-reinforced reps behind us, and fluency is aiding the reliability. Reinforcement of sport behaviors doesn’t change much. I ask for longer sequences sometimes, but when the dog accomplishes my criteria — whether I ask for one behavior or several in a row — I reinforce correct behavior. I still try to reinforce real life behaviors as well, but sometimes at this stage, especially as life goes on, all they get is thanks and a pet.

I occasionally use negative punishment with real life behaviors at this stage if I’m not getting a response. I don’t do that very frequently though. By stage four I simply shouldn’t have to. If I’m getting non-responses, I rushed training. (Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I’m just not big on making my dogs pay when I’m the one who isn’t being thorough.)

Foundation behaviors, part 2

Continuing the list of foundation behaviors I want to teach Tenn…

Walk at my side. This behavior is a precursor to walking on a loose leash, competition heeling, and conformation gaiting. I thought about it and decided I want to, from the beginning, make walking next to me really, really reinforcing. That position is basically going to be the best place in the world to hang out. It will be taught off leash, no lures, just rewarding her for being next to me — either left or right side. Doing this, by the way, is a great way to proactively deal with the habit puppies have of chasing pants legs.

Name recognition / Attention. I’ll start this as soon as I pick her up. It begins with simply pairing her name with a treat. I’ll also work on reinforcing uncued attention. Checking in with me is a highly reinforced behavior around here. I don’t require eye contact for everything when working — not for much at all, in fact. But teaching the behavior really helps cement the idea that focusing on me is a really good thing. Besides, nothing makes my heart melt as fast as the soft loving gaze of one of my dogs.

Retrieve. Retrieving is not an easy skill. It’s complex, and when done precisely there are a lot of parts to isolate and hone. Still I consider it an important enough behavior that I want to include it in her foundation behaviors. In addition to my interest in retriever training for the field (which she would do only as my practice dog), retrieving is a darn handy behavior around the house. I really like being able to point out an object in the house or yard and have one of the dogs get it for me. It’s also nice to have dogs pick up things they find and bring them to me, rather than taking them and eating them.

Grooming / Nail clipping / Husbandry behaviors. These are behaviors that are frequently skipped as part of “training.” Many people just jump right into them and force the dog to deal with it. The truth is, though, that these behaviors are really very intrusive and not always comfortable. It’s a lot easier and faster in the long run to teach the dog to patiently allow the procedures than to try to hold him still and finish as quickly as possible. I want to be able to groom, dremel nails, and handle feet, ears, and mouth, and I want the vet and groomer to be able to do the things they need to, without stressing Tenn.

Crate training. I don’t use crates very often, but I’m probably going to use them more often with Tenn. Not only is management going to be more important with three dogs (one of who aggressively redirects if he’s stressed), but if I do any competition with her, she’s going to need to be comfortable in a crate.

She’s also going to need to sleep in a crate at first. My preference is to have the dogs sleep on the bed, especially as puppies, but Jay has absolutely drawn the line there. Our bed just isn’t big enough for a third dog. Besides I think that might cause some issues with Aslan. So Miss Tennyson needs to be crated at night for a while.

Stay on a mat. Being able to target a mat and stay on it is very helpful in real life. It’s a place for the dog to hang out and wait. It’s a stay-in-location stay versus a stay-in-position stay, which is more comfortable for long-time, relaxed stays in the real world.

Scent work. I hesitantly add this here. I’ve done very little scent work before, but I’d like to teach Tenn to track. Does scent work need to be one of her foundation behavior? Probably not. But it sure sounds like fun, so why not?

Foundation behaviors, part 1

As I look for puppy classes for Tenn, I’ve been thinking about the first behaviors I want to teach her. First-learned behaviors are extraordinarily powerful; they’re the behaviors that the dog reverts to when she doesn’t know what else to do.

There are so many things I’d like to do with Tenn… conformation, obedience, Rally, tracking, water work, draft work. Heck — I’d even like to do some retriever training with her, since it may be a while before I get a new curly pup. With all those activities on the horizon, I don’t have any shortage of behaviors to train. But I think I’ve identified the handful I want to start with.

Targeting with nose and paw. Targeting is super important to me. I don’t use targets terribly often as lures — something the dog follows — but I like them for distance behaviors. Targeting is also the behavior underlying most any object interaction behavior. No matter what kind of interaction you eventually want, the easiest way to start is by simply touching it.

I want to teach Tenn to target with both her nose and her paw. My plan is to use a black square target for paw touches and a white round target for nose touches — and unique verbal cues that are carefully proofed. I taught Pax that objects on the floor were for paw touches and objects held off the ground were to be nose touched. Eventually I ran into situations where I wanted nose touches of something on the ground and paw touches of something I held, and it confused the heck out of him. I want to avoid that problem this time.

Recall. Pax has the most incredible recall ever, and I want Tenn’s to be even better. That means lots of reps in lots of locations. I want straight lines and a FAST return. I’ll probably have to work on this alone most of the time, so it will be a dual “stay” exercise as well.

Sit. I put sit on here, but sit isn’t really my favorite behavior — not for giant-breed puppies, anyway. It’s way too easy to train a sloppy sit that will then be a pain in the tuchus to fix for competition obedience later. I would just wait to teach it, but it’s both handy for everyday behaviors — sit at the door, sit to be petted — and it’s a staple of puppy and obedience classes. So I have to go ahead and start shaping a tight, square, tucked sit from the beginning.

Down. I prefer down to sit as my default control behavior. There are actually several versions of down to be taught. There’s the sphinx down, which is a foldback down from a stand used when there will be another action cue following soon. There’s a settle, which is a down on a hip used for long, relaxed downs. And there’s a down from a sit. I probably won’t teach that one until Tenn is clearly differentiating the cues for (sphinx) down and sit.

Conformation stack. I have trouble teaching stand unless it’s a clearly-defined position like the conformation stack. Also, since I want to show in conformation I figured I’d work on the stack from the beginning and really make a square, balanced stand a strong default. The challenge with this one is that I’ve never really done it before. I’ve played with it a little, but I’m not especially comfortbale with the techniques I’ve tried.

This is getting kind of long, and I need to get to work. I’ll finish the list tomorrow!