Who’s Shaping Me?

Posted on 09/17/09 22 Comments

Isn’t it funny how all of these posts on dogs shaping people have ended up having picture of a terrier with them. And not coincidentally many of your comments are about Jack Russell Terriers! Hmm, yes indeed Terriers are just masterful at shaping their people. It is because they are so brilliant and have a tenacity that allows them to continue to try something over and over until it finally works.

So let me start off by sharing some of the things my terrier have managed to shape me to do.  Twister was magnificent at it.  When I used to be in sales my dogs traveled with me. We would come home from work at night and I would rush to the bathroom. Twister would go to the office and take any new fax that came in from the fax machine and delivery them, one page at a time, to me sitting on the toilet.  Now this was a good thing and she would get reinforced for it. However when I left sales and became a full time dog trainer there where no longer daily faxes for my little terrier to deliver. That didn’t stop Twister.  Every once in a while as I worked at my desk in my office, she would dig through trash until she found an intact sheet of paper. She would then leave the office with it and then prance back with it in her mouth, proud as can be as if to announce “here, you didn’t see this one, this is a fax that just came in.”  I would laugh my butt off and of course I would reward her.  She then went on to include John’s desk in on the game. She would jump on his desk and take a piece of mail from his stack to deliver it to me. It always cracked me up (although it soon grew tiresome for John:)).

I had trained Twister to sit on a chair in the kitchen anytime anyone prepared food (dogs meals or human) in

Twister (1992-2008) working her chair routine
Twister (1992-2008) working her chair routine

 the kitchen. When she got on her chair she would earn the chance to be rewarded. It wasn’t a gaurenteed reward, although Twister believed it should be.  If I was preparing a big meal and was in the kitchen for a long time she would get on and off the chair as if to let me know she been rewarded enough. That never worked, what did work (and it took me giving her quite few reinforcements before I clued it) was if Twist didn’t get her cookies she would start to rattle the chair. She did it by shifting her weight back and forth on it in order to get it rocking against the tile floor. This quiet noise brought my attention to her in a more subtle way and allowed her to earn several rewards before I realized what was going on. She was a gem that Twister girl and I continued to reward that little game of hers long after I knew what she was doing. Sometimes cute gets rewarded too.

DeCaff shaped me to do something that later caused me about 9 months of training grief. Here is what happened. When she was a puppy and we would tug I would play Smack Da Baby with her (wacking her with my free hand as she tugged) and she loved the game. However if I smacked her anywhere from her shoulders forward she would drop the toy. She always was happy to re-grip but she always dropped the toy. So her behaviour unconsciously shaped me not to Smack Da Baby above her shoulders. No big deal right? Wrong. It took me 9 months to figure out why I struggled getting any speed or rhythm with DeCaff in her weave pole performance. It took her over 4 seconds to weave 12 poles. Once I realized it was that she didn’t the poles touching her anywhere near her shoulders or face I fixed my problem with less a month of counter-conditioning.  When I was done not only could I Smack Da Baby anywhere on her body (including in her face) I also could also play the new game of smack-a-wee-baby-face-into-the polies.  I never had a problem with her weave poles again and she went on to have one of the fastest times for Jack Russell and mini dogs in the Clean Run 60 Weave Pole Challenge.

Don’t think terriers are the only dogs that can shape behaviour either. All dogs have this skill. My Border Collies are just to obvious though. Clearly they haven’t learned the subtitles of the terriers.  That is until Feature. I have always thought of her as  Terrier in a Border Collie’s body. The most annoying behaviours Feature has pulled on me involve her crate games. Notice how she has managed to get me to leave her on an agility table rather than in her crate when I teach or train. She is just brilliant. 

Okay, your turn. Continue to tell me the things your dogs have managed to shape you to do. Do be shy, I’ve showed you mine, now you should me yours!

Today I am grateful how all of my dogs; those past and present, continue to teach me that reinforcement really does build behaviour.


  1. AN says:
    Friday, February 11, 2011 at 10:36pm

    My Jack Russell-Basenji mix has shaped me, I have to confess. She wasn’t very affection-seeking when I first got her from the shelter at 1 year old; I thought it was a Basenji thing. I have a rule when we’re in the car, she is supposed to sit, not wander around & stuff. When I first got her I would make her do this (I didn’t know anything about training back then). Later I decided car rides were a good time to pet her, maybe she’d start to like it, and sure enough she did. She’d sidle her butt closer and closer (one time she got too close and fell between the bucket seats!) But eventually I noticed her main trick. Whenever I stopped petting her (say, because I needed both hands on the wheel to turn a corner), up she’d pop and I’d tell her to SIT and resume petting her once she did! In her mind she was manipulating me into resuming.


  2. Jenny Ruth Yasi says:
    Sunday, September 27, 2009 at 9:45am

    An 14 year old yellow lab is a current house guest. I’m supposed to give him a pill wrapped in cream cheese. So I hold it out. He looks at me. “Oh, you want more cream cheese on that?” I double the cream cheese. He sort of nods his head, like, that was correct, and gulps it down.

    I let him outside. He barks, Try to let him inside. He stands there staring at me till I take a step towards his collar. He turns and heads away. “I’ve gotta go,” I tell my husband. “The dog wants me to take him for a walk.” I walk along in the garden with him, and as long as I’m headed in the direction he wants to go, he keeps walking. If I turn the wrong direction, he stops and stands there, teetering on his old legs. I head off the way he wants me to go, and he ambles right along.

    He brings me back in to feed him his breakfast. “Eat!” I implore. His owners told me they are desperate to get him eating more. He won’t touch it. “He won’t eat.” I tell my husband. “Maybe if I put some tuna in it….”


  3. Lianne says:
    Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 3:14pm

    I have really been enjoying reading all the comments on these posts. My first dog, a Border Terrier (Peanut) who I got as an 8 year old, was fantastic at shaping me. As a little puppy, I would always scratch her ear for her when she was itchy and scratching at it. Her looks of appreciation and puppy kisses were such a great reward for me! She weaned her “lure” of the very active scratching, and would start to scratch but very slowly and looking at me the whole time. Of course, I would finish the job for her. She eventually got to the point that all she had to do was literally stick her foot in her ear and sit there, not scratching at all, to get me to rub her ears and scratch her head. Such a smart little lady.

    She also loved her bones, and would chase them around on the floor. She very quickly learned that if she shoved it under the couch or whatever other furniture might be in the room, that I would get up and get it out for her (since she was scratching at the floor and whining and what not). She would from there on out put her bones there on purpose, or just act like that with no bones under the couch! That was her favorite, getting the human to lift up the couch or get out the yardstick to see if there are any toys to fish out, only to find out that Peanut had fooled us again. She was a very special girl!


  4. Beth says:
    Monday, September 21, 2009 at 10:29am

    Ok my little Papillon Mikey is a little handful to say the least. He has decided that he is a BIG boy and doesn’t want to eat from his tiny food bowl any more. He wants his big sisters bowls to eat from now. I guess we have to pick our battles….


  5. Jo says:
    Monday, September 21, 2009 at 9:23am

    My sheltie made it a habit to lie down so that my mother would step on him when she was cooking, of course, she felt sorry for him and gave him a treat, and it took us months to realize he did it on purpose….


  6. Tracy says:
    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 10:12pm

    I always try to practice frisbee near a body of water, so I can easily give my dogs cool breaks during the hot Missouri summers. Well……….when my BC mix, Blade, was young, he found it quite entertaining to chase the splashes of rocks as I threw them into the river while he swam and cooled off. Very quickly this changed from simply enjoying chasing the splashes to obsessing about them. Now, I can definitively say that Blade has shaped me into tossing rocks simply to get him INTO the freakin water to cool off! I am quite sure that he’s now shaped me so well, he could be ready to die of heatstroke and still WAIT to jump into the cooling water until I start tossing those dang rocks…………..


  7. Kathy says:
    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 10:23am


    My lab has shaped me into giving her a biscuit for “bringing finished Kongs” to me to put away. My 2 dogs get stuffed Kongs after meals, my lab brings each one to me….usually carries the first one, following me to the dog pantry, where she releases it to my hand…I put it away and give her a small treat…then she goes and finds the 2nd one, brings it to me still waiting in the pantry. She releases that one for another treat. Both Kongs are now put away ready to fill after the next meal or for a mid day snack. But she shaped me into doing this. I think the behavior came from her coming to me with the finished Kong and dropping it at my feet or into my lap if i was sitting & my saying Thank you & taking it to put it away. I think she was interested in seeing if I’d fill it again. Probably when she was younger I always had treats on me and I would give her a treat just because it was cute, felt it should be rewarded. The 2nd dog, an older sheltie has never put two and two together, she finishes the Kong and walks away leaving it there.

    The new puppy sheltie, tho likes retreiving games, usually just for the game itself, but he is bringing me his Kong, just like the lab, I check it to see if there is any biscuit stuck in the bottom…if so he gets it. I suppose I should allow the shaping of me to happen again, this is a nice way for the Kongs to get picked up and put away.


  8. Vanessa says:
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 10:07pm

    My 5yr old BC “Tal” is very polite and gentlemanly – and gets away with blue murder… He is sooo sneaky and it only takes one reinforcement for him to “do it again”.
    His current thing is to very politely sit or stand, staring intently at what even it is he wants (ball, cong ect…) and then slowly look in my direction, then back at the thing… He looks so cute and so very polite. Unfortunately I gave in after a busy night shift ONCE and now he does it just about every day just in case I give in again…
    He also does Pets as Therapy at the local nursing home. He does his tricks and gets pats ect… One day I was late with a reward for hand touching (to get him closer to a patient) and he had a foot in the air. Well he now thinks the must shake hands with every patient…
    And then theres our obedience and agility “training” where he’s shaped me to do sooo many behaviours….
    Cheers for Australia


  9. Shaya says:
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 5:34pm

    It’s interesting that some of the behaviors mentioned are behaviors you might actually want. Like Dawn’s dog who goes ot her side when a person, animal or car comes into view. That seems quite useful. With a dog who was at all reactive that would be exactly what you’d want from them, though maybe on an intermittent reinforcement schedule.

    My family just got a young cat a couple months ago and he is an amazing trainer. If he doesn’t like how you’re petting him he’ll open his mouth and move it towards your hand like he might bite you. And people usually respond to that. If not he continues and will work up to putting teeth on skin. His timing is excellent and his punishments are fair. He also has much more persistence than the dogs as far as waking people up to go out.


  10. Luna's Mom says:
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 5:28pm

    HHHMMM–I have now thought more about this and have noticed some behaviors that my little Portuguese Podengo has shaped for me. She must sit before I come in the door. So, when I come in from the yard through the garage she knows there is a treat bucket there. If I do not go to the bucket first, she will just stare at me and not sit or be very slow. It took me a while, but I caught on! So now there are magical treats that may appear even if I don’t go to the treat bucket first. We’ll see what she shapes me to do next! Good Luck to you and Encore. I’ll see you next week!


  11. Beth Bowling says:
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 1:08pm

    Ok, I have more things my Parson Russell has tried on me than I want to admit, but here is one she trained my Westie to do. My Westie would seek out throws or blankets to lay on (these were normally on the couch). My Parson Russell lives to play so many times when my Westie was laying on a blanket the Parson would pull the blanket until the dog hit the floor. Now since her playmate was on the floor they would play. My Westie always played with her once she landed on the floor so the Parson got rewarded everytime. Talk about building behavior!


  12. Deanna says:
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 12:44pm

    My labrador hates when im laying down in the couch trying to take a nap.. (hence no attention when im sleeping.) so she brings me toys.. no response from me. She then starts barking at me (57 times in a row and counting).. she notices that doesnt work as it does not make me move nor open my eyes. So now she’s figured out that if she gets real close to my face and breathes her stinky breath directly into my nose, she gets a response which is me quickly sitting up to get a breath of air…
    She doesn’t even need the clicker.


    • Diana says:
      Monday, February 28, 2011 at 7:45pm

      Ha Ha, I wake up from a nap with at least 6 toys lying all around and on me -delivered by 13 mo Aussie. Must admit I have a few other distractors that assist with dog diversion-husband and children-to save me from stinky dog breath!


  13. Dawn says:
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 11:22am

    Last night I noticed a new shaping behaviour, ok maybe being on the bed is one too. As Memphis, OES lay beside me with his head on hubbies pillow I gave him a tummy rub, the moment I stopped he quickly lifted his head to look at me as if to say and……and of course I would continue, this went on for some time.

    This morning out on our daily walk, every time we saw a person, car, or animal he would zip back to my side looking up at me for the treat that we have been using over and over as positive reinforcement and like above, of course he got that treat. I have also noticed that sometimes he just comes back and walks by my side even if nothing is there untill he gets one. I tell myself that he is getting it for being a good boy and checking in!

    And I am embarassed to admit the list goes on………….


  14. Linda says:
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 11:11am

    I was training my terrier not to bark when someone rang the doorbell or knocked on the door. It didn’t take her very long to run to the door barking when no one was there then immediately run to her mat and wait for a treat!


  15. Kim Collins says:
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 11:08am

    Ha! I remember seeing miss Twister on the chair in your kitchen while you cooked! I think I may have actually sat or leaned on her chair there for a second and she was very annoyed! BUT very cute!

    I am still pondering ALL the things my dogs have shaped me to do. Bryn my 11.5 year old BC is especially good at getting me to do stuff for her ( or lately not make her do stuff:o) ) She is a bit of a princess now that she is almost 12! The sucky poopy face is a great cue for me to let her get away with whatever she wants!!!

    Good Luck over the next 3 days!


  16. Jenn says:
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 10:52am

    My border/lab figured out that jumping when we people come in equals silent treatment. Sadly he found a solution to this. He is at just the right height to crotch sniff…which instantly gets hands on his head. And if you ignore him he really pokes at you until you have to push him away.
    Once I figured out this game of “embarrass the guests = lots of attention” I started telling visitors to just turn around and ignore him….now all my visitors get goosed instead!!!


  17. Liz says:
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 10:00am

    My dachshund “sits pretty” when he wants to be picked up. He has ever since he was a puppy. This is an adorable behavior of course, like a small child who lifts his arms in the air and says “up” every time he wants a better vantage point. And I will admit I have obliged him from time to time. And so has my boyfriend, and my parents, and friends, and pretty much anyone who knows that is what he is looking for. Including several of his dog instructors. Like I said, it’s very cute. Of course this means that when in obedience class, while our dogs are patiently sitting at our sides, and us humans are listening to the instructor explain something, every now and then I’ll glance down to see the patiently waiting rows of labs, BC, and Aussies (dachshunds and obedience aren’t generally used in the same sentence) to see my little doxie doing his best impression of a prairie dog. It’s as if he’s saying “This is boring. I’m not getting cookies for this. Pick me up!” Mildly embarrassing. I have decided that the best course of action is to completely ignore him when this happens and turn my back on him completely. But instead of deciding that sitting patiently will earn him my attention again and perhaps a cookie. He decides that I am a lost cause, and when I finally do turn back around, I find that he has just moved over to the person closest to him and continued the same behavior. “Well…. Then how about you? Will you pick me up?” Apparently I need to increase the rate of reinforcement for just waiting patiently at my side. So more cookies and less listening to those pesky instructors.


  18. Wendy Nydam says:
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 8:38am

    My Aussie Tucker has learned to shape me and every other competitor at Agility Trials if your sitting in a chair he comes over and with his nose he will flick their hand onto his head and before you know your petting him but it doesn’t stop there he maneuvers their petting until it hits just the right spot on his back. He will also go around and tap every bodies pockets gently with his nose checking for treats and they mindlessly give them to him just for being so darn cute.


  19. Carol says:
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 8:34am

    After reading these 3 posts and everyone’s comments, I’ve realized what a sucker I am! There’s so much to work on but one example is my sheltie, Julie – she knows that if she runs towards the road or edge of the property I will call “come!” and give her a treat when she does. I (finally) figured this out when I saw her heading out and looping gracefully back when I called; I could see that her plan on going out was to get called back. Beautiful sheltie herding curves, though!


  20. Sarah S says:
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 8:08am

    My english cocker has shaped me absolutely brilliantly when it comes to getting up in the morning… her crate is in the room directly beneath mine, and she has learned that *when my partner is home* (i.e. not away on a trip, but at home sleeping next to me) yelping/”squeaking” at dawn will cause me to jump out of bed and run downstairs to let her out and do the morning routine. This is because Omar absolutely hates “dog racket” first thing in the morning, and Suzette knows that if he is home I won’t wait her out. It is amazing how well she knows this contingency… when I am home alone overnight or during the day, she really doesn’t try this behavior much. Between the dog and the man, boy am I a puppet!

    In writing this comment, I have just realized that the golden key to changing this behavior is a set of ear plugs 😉 Thanks, Susan!


  21. Marco says:
    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 5:56am

    I hope your training this morning was doing well. I didn’t watch ‘cos I was working… however I noticed in the English team someone who did some shadow handling, is he (or she) a Greg’s student ?


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