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Training with “Shaping”: A True Story of Trust, Respect and Love

Author: Dawn Archer Pizzoferrato, ABCDT

clicker3Training using the training methods of “Capturing” and “Shaping” are by far my favorite ways to train most behaviors. After all, I’m a clicker trainer. It’s my specialty. Using a clicker is the best way to get fast results because it’s quick and accurate. Speed and accuracy are key to success when using these methods.

Before I get to my story, let me first explain just what “Capturing” and “Shaping” are. They are different, yet related and are often used in unison with one another. “Shaping” is using a marker, like a clicker, to mark and reinforce (with a food reward) tiny increments or approximations of behavior towards an ultimate goal behavior.  A “click” means the dog is moving in the right direction and no click means he is not and he needs to try something else. Using this training method, you can create complex behaviors like closing a door or putting away toys.

“Capturing” occurs when your dog just does something you like (for instance, he flops on his side as if dead) and you click and reward that full behavior. You then just wait for the behavior to occur again so that you can repeat the click and reward. What happens next is truly amazing. The dog soon figures out that a particular behavior is causing YOU to click and the dog repeats it, over and over. Trainers call that “offering behavior.”  From this point, you can simply add a cue or command when the dog is “offering behavior” and in just a few minutes, you will have a behavior on command.

So now, on to my story. This story is about MacKinley, the most beautiful (and big) Greyhound I have ever had the pleasure to meet. I first saw MacKinley when he was walking down the stairs of the facility where I teach training classes. He was there for his first training class, my Canine Good Citizen: Clicker Style class.  As I  mentioned, MacKinley is BIG; as large as an average sized Great Dane.  His head comes up to my chest and he is thin, yet muscular and sleek, and elegant and light on his feet like most Greyhounds.  But, unlike many Greyhounds, MacKinley was friendly, VERY friendly. Don’t get me wrong, Greyhounds are not generally unfriendly, they just aren’t  typically exuberant, especially if they have just retired from the Greyhound racing circuit as MacKinley had.

leah 1At MacKinley’s side was his owner, Leah.  Herself thin and elegant. And, also a real beauty. They matched.

After interviewing Leah, I learned that she had tried to register for my Therapy Dog class but it was full and she was counseled to take the CGC class to help towards their goal of becoming a Therapy Dog team. What at first was disappointing for Leah, actually turned out to be fortuitous because in this smaller class, I was going to be able to give them more one-on-one instruction. At this time, I also found out more about MacKinley’s personal history. He retired in the Spring of 2012, was relinquished to a Greyhound rescue.  Leah came along very soon after and adopted him.  He literally went from the track into her home, his first home. As of January 2013, they had only been doing obedience work for about a month. Before that, for the previous 6 months, they had just bonded, nothing else. That is where the “Trust” part of this story began. And, that would prove critically important as this pair worked at the formal obedience training phase of their relationship.

I always start this class with an explanation of what the AKC CGC test entails along with a quick evaluation of where each dog stands on the test behaviors. Leah and MacKinley did very well on almost all the requirements. But where they needed work, to put it bluntly, those behaviors were going to be a challenge. You see, retired racing Greyhounds generally don’t know how to sit. Why Greyhounds don’t sit is a matter of debate. Some say it’s because they are aren’t allowed to sit or are punished for sitting so that they don’t sit down in the starting gates. Some say, with their super long legs and highly muscled thighs, they just aren’t comfortable doing it. I suspect it’s a little of both. But the fact remains, the AKC CGC test REQUIRES all dogs to “sit.” Therapy Dog International does not require dogs to “sit,” but the CGC test does. And we knew that getting an adult Greyhound to sit on command when he has NEVER done it before was not going to be easy. So this was not a behavior we could simply “capture” because MacKinley had NEVER sat down before. He also didn’t know “down” on command and his “stay” was not reliable.

Mackinley sitting prettyWhen coming up with a plan to get MacKinley to “sit” on command, I ask Leah if he ever did anything similar to a sit; come to find out, he did. He “leaned.” He often leaned against the sofa or even sometimes, a pile of pillows. That was important because when using the “shaping” method of training, we need to mark (with a clicker, of course) and reward any approximation of behavior towards our final goal. AND, (this is really important) I was NOT going to allow Leah (not that she would anyway) do anything remotely negative with MacKinley that could jeopardize the trust he already had and the mutual respect they were currently working on creating. I asked Leah keep her clicker attached to her and treats squirreled away somewhere close to carefully watch MacKinley when they were at home. She needed to be ready to reinforce ANY leaning he did. I also noticed that MacKinley pretty easily backed-up when she moved into him. We would also use this to reach the first week goal: Get Mackinley to “sit” on the sofa.

And you know what, she did! When they came back to class the next week, MacKinley was easily sitting on the sofa (his back legs sticking straight out in front of him) with just a little forward pressure of Leah walking up to him. He had started offering the behavior and she had started attaching the cue/command to “sit” every time he did it. Leah was well on her way to teaching her dog to sit by “shaping.” Over the next few weeks, we worked on downs (both capturing it at home and luring it while in class) and “release” as a precursor to a good, strong stay. All of which were progressing very nicely. Then one night they came into class and Leah had something to show me. Sure enough, MacKinley sat! While he wasn’t doing it on command yet, he was randomly offering the behavior. And, he was DOING it, over and over. He was doing it just because he knew Leah liked it and when he did it she clicked and he got a treat. That is the power of clicker training. A few days later Leah posted this picture on her Facebook page…Enough said!

Last week Leah and MacKinley took the CGC test. Yes, they PASSED! I couldn’t have been more proud of MacKinley and Leah! And when you see the two of them together, there is no doubt that this human/dog relationship is based strongly on Trust, Respect and so much Love….with help from a little “shaping”and “clicking.”

Originally published on the Arrow Dog Training Blog: Chew On This on 2/21/13.

Learn More About Dawn & How to Get Your Dog On Target!

Dawn is an Animal Behavior College Certified Dog Trainer, an experience Nose Work Instructor, an AKC Canine Good Citizen evaluator, a certified Therapy Dog International® Evaluator, and the owner of Arrow Dog Training.  Dawn is AnnaBelle’s resident clicker training specialist and she can help you Get Your Dog on Target!

Dawn uses scientifically proven “clicker training” and “free shaping” to teach your dog all the basics plus other fun, useful behaviors. She uses operant conditioning and positive reinforcement, without correction, to help you and your dog build a bond of trust and respect.

In addition to presenting Doggie Do Good clicker classes, Dawn also offers Nose Work and TDI® classes. Dawn’s group classes are taught at AnnaBelle’s on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. Click here to see her complete class schedule!

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