Unless you are a dog trainer or in the field of psychology, you may not have heard the term shaping behavior. My formal education is in psychology. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science from the Psychology department at Old Dominion University in Virginia. I thought for many years that I wanted to be a psychologist but towards the end of my college career, I began to want more information on Animal Psychology. So much so that I had the psychology department bring back their Animal Psychology course that had been retired for many years. All I had to do was get a professor on board with teaching it and enough students to sign up for it. It took me one week.
It’s by far my favorite class from my college years and I still have the textbook. I don’t know that I would have taken the path to work with animals if I hadn’t had the opportunity to take this class which opened my eyes to the idea that most of what we know today about humans is because of what we know about other animals, other mammals. So it’s no surprise that shaping behaviors are a technique used with both humans as well as other animals.
Shaping is a process where you gradually train a behavior or action by breaking it down into smaller steps to gradually reach the full behavior you are looking for, rewarding each step of the way.
This type of training is especially good for more difficult tasks or challenges. An example of shaping behavior is crate training. I chose this example specifically because I abhor social media posts about crate training and want to spread the word about proper crate training as much as possible. Contrary to popular belief, forcing your dog into a crate and shutting the door, then ignoring them until they quiet down IS NOT CRATE TRAINING.
Ok, now that I’ve vented, let’s take apart crate training so you can see how it’s a great example of shaping behavior. We take a giant task, in this case getting your dog comfortable inside of their crate, and break it down into many smaller tasks that are more easily attainable for your dog.
1. Set the crate up in the room you want your crate to reside (this should be in an area where you are such as the family room or bedroom). Let your dog become accustomed to the new addition and reward for any voluntary interactions. Do not force your dog to interact.
2. Keep the crate door open at all times and any interest your dog has in the crate should be rewarded. Toss treats in the general vicinity of the crate for your dog to sniff out and enjoy.
3. As your dog becomes accustomed to the crate being in the room, slowly give your dog an incentive to walk over towards and into the crate. Place small treats going toward the door of the crate and into the crate. NEVER shut the door on your dog at this point.
4. Over time, your dog will be more willing to go inside the crate. Now you can even begin feeding meals inside of the crate. Again, we are not closing the door.
5. Set up primary training sessions where you use treats to get your dog into the crate and close the door for a second, not latching it, then opening the door and rewarding your dog.
6. Over time, you can close the door for longer periods of time. Be sure to go at your dogs’ pace and never let them feel uncomfortable as this can set back your training.
7. With time, your dog will become accustomed to being calm inside of the crate with random rewards.
Do you see how we took an item that is too much for our dog to handle all at once and broke it up into smaller, more attainable goals? This is shaping a behavior.
Other types of training
There is also catching a behavior, which can be very useful when training a hyper dog to calm down since we wait for the dog to do the action or behavior on their own and reward for it, marking it with a “YES!” and also with the cue word you want your dog to learn.
In contrast, luring a behavior would be more like teaching a sit or a down. Luring is where you use a reward (food) to guide your dog into a position, such as a sit or a down, and reward along with a marker, such as “YES!” when your dog hits the desired position.
I like to use all of these when working with a dog. I don’t see anyone as better than the other, only that different tactics may work better in different situations and with different dogs.
Remember to practice patience, positivity, and consistency when working with any dog. Training takes time and quite honestly is never done. Even once we train a behavior, we need to reinforce it throughout our dog’s life to maintain it.