Who’s Shaping Who?

Posted on 09/15/09 15 Comments

It is fascinating to me how this shaping stuff works. Here we have one animal (ideally you) providing reinforcement

Who really is shaping who here? That is what 9 week old DeCaff was asking.
Who really is shaping who here? That is what 9 week old DeCaff appeared to be asking.

 in order to get another animal (say your dog) to do what you want him to do. Shaping really works. Why? Because reinforcement builds behaviour.  But what I have come to notice that there is more shaping that goes on without the human’s conscious, decision making then there is when we stand with a bowl of treats in our hands looking for a response to reward.

Here is the truth as I have come to observe life and dogs. Dogs are far, far better at shaping their people’s behaviour than people are at shaping the dog. Sorry if this is insulting, but it is true. Dogs are brilliant at identifying and exploiting patterns of reinforcement.  If you are having trouble believing me see if these scenarios don’t ring true.


You are romping on the floor with your new puppy. Suddenly the puppy finds a piece of fluff on the floor very fascinating. You call “pup, pup” the puppy ignores you. Here is the puppy’s first lesson on how he can shape your behaviour because what you do next is instrumental in his lesson. You take out a loud puppy toy and you squeak it in order to get the puppy’s attention.  


Lesson number one in shaping your human, “if you don’t come when you are called she will present the best she’s got so you can decide if it is worth leaving what you found.”


I see this whole sceanrio as a Far Side cartoon.  I see two dogs in the backyard. One older dog, the other a puppy. It is raining the two of them are sniffing in the wet grass. Suddenly the back door opens and a woman all ready for work in a tailored suit calls out “com’on boys, I have to go!”  The young pup starts to leave his sniffing but the older dog says to him “you old on there, just wait on it, git back to that ignoring & sniffing.” The young dog obliges and starts to sniff again.  The impatient lady at the back door checks her watch and pleads again, “Rover, Fido, Come!” Older dog whispers, “wait on it, wait on it.” The lady now pleads one more time before finally singing “cookie, cookie, mamma’s got a cookie.” Gotchya, both soggy dogs happily come into the house for their cookie. Learning if you come immediately you often only get a pat on the head, but if you can wait on it, you can a much more valuable prize!


Next up is the retrieve where you throw out a toy and your puppy picks it up, comes part way back to you and stalls, contemplating his options with his butt in the air. You call him, he does nothing so you turn and run the other way whooping it up like a mad woman. How cool is that. A 12 week old puppy can shape your behaviour. One minute your neighbour looks out the window you appear to be a normal human being playing with a dog, the next you are flailing around like your ass is on fire.  The puppy learns; if he doesn’t bring back the toy you either turn into prey for him to hunt down or sometimes you even produce another toy and slap it on the ground for him to drive towards. Either way, the puppy learns it is always better to NOT bring the toy back right away.


Need I go on?  Okay, just since you asked so nicely, I will carry on tomorrow with more common ways dog’s have learned to successfully shape their human’s behaviour. Heck I will even include how my own dogs have got me!


Today I am grateful that Encore and I along with the rest of the Canadian team have all arrived safe and sound in Austria.


  1. Marcella says:
    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 11:29pm

    Wow-totally rings true. 🙂 I can definitely relate to this-guilty as charged. It’s even more interesting to read while taking Psychology this year and getting more into depth with all of these things. Gotta love how smart dogs are. I’m a firm believer that they are most definitely smarter than humans-and you’ve proven it!!!


  2. Sharon Normandin says:
    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 11:52am

    hmm, just read my last post and realized that my grammar and sentence structure leaves a lot to be desired with respect to conveying my meaning.

    My suggestion was that you write a humorous book based on Who’s Shaping Who, and solicit anecdotes from the readers of your blog, or other students, and for those stories that you choose to incorporate into your book, provide a voucher for one free session at your skills or handling camps for the PERSON providing the tales, rather than for the “tales” themselves, as I seem to have stated earlier.


  3. Sharon Normandin says:
    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 11:43am

    This is great, Susan! I can see a book, a somewhat humorous book on the foibles of training. Why don’t you get input from the readers, and those tales that you choose to include in a book get one free session at one of your skills or handling camps, in lieu of royalties?

    I’m grateful that I can take weekly classes with Tracy Sklenar, who is great at catching people (like me) who are inadvertently allowing their dogs to shape their handling and training behaviour. Doesn’t prevent it, but at least it does make me aware of it, and I can keep trying . . .


  4. Jerry Burns says:
    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 10:13am

    Our Cocker Spaniel will pick up her baby during the middle of the day on a weekend if we are home and run towards our bedroom. It her way of telling us its time for a nap. Sometime we follow other times we don’t but she tries to get our attention with a soulful pout if we don’t follow her.


  5. Rachelle says:
    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 9:32am

    Oh so VERY true! So, now that we all know what they do and how they do it, how do we fix it with our current dogs and not allow it to happen with our future dogs??? Thanks! (fixed the wrong know/now…I give up!)


  6. Rachelle says:
    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 9:31am

    Oh so VERY true! So, know that we all now what they do and how they do it, how do we fix it with our current dogs and not allow it to happen with our future dogs??? Thanks! (typo in last comment, sorry)


  7. Rachelle says:
    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 9:30am

    Oh so VERY true! So, now that we all now what they do and how they do it, how do we fix it with our current dogs and not allow it to happen with our future dogs??? Thanks!


  8. Kim says:
    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 7:19am

    I am sooo guilty! My JRT has by number on how to get a cuddle . And my little mix girl….. she can get me to jump through hoops.
    Unbeknowst to them, things are about to change! hahahahahaaa


  9. Trudie says:
    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 3:59am

    DE-caf ! Love this puppy photo, what a cookie !
    We’ve been shaped! anticipating next installment, the more we wait the more we keep coming back.
    Thanks for video link, we’ll be watching and cheering for you!


  10. Jenny Ruth Yasi says:
    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 2:09pm

    Very funny! I have a bichon whose intelligence should be measured, not by how many repetitions it takes for him to learn something, but for how many repetitions it takes for him to NOT learn something! He finds it incredibly reinforcing to see what I will do about THAT! Dogs crack me up.


  11. Naomi den Hartog says:
    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 1:53pm

    haha… way interesting! It doesn’t surprise me that my pup has shaped some thing in me… he’s a very smart little guy, but I guess he shaped me more tricks then I thought 🙂
    I do recognise myself in the retrieve story. need to find out how to fix that :)))

    Good luck at the world championships!!!


  12. Kim Collins says:
    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 1:06pm

    Interesting that you bring this up now since my whole last month of teaching and training my own dogs has been focussed on just this idea. I realized that my dogs shape me into altering my “handling cues” as well and my students will do it too I noticed. It was made hugely apparent to me when I started really working my handling skills with my puppy Stryder. I used all of the foundation handling games you gave us last March and he is SO MUCH FUN! He reads my decel SO well, which Bounce, the older dog, does not. So I started thinking about why, and I realized that I have a preconcieved notion that Bounce doesn’t read it, doesn’t like to slow down, has a long stride, knocks bars, blah, blah, blah, and I realized she has shaped me into trying all different things to get her to collect more, keep bars up, etc, and Stryder I have no “notions” to use so I just trained the cue to be X and he has to respond with Y to get the reward. So simple!

    But poor Bounce, I have tried A,B,C,D and I keep changing things to try to “get” the behavior rather than just sticking to X cue and not let her shape me into offering up all this other crap to “get the result” I am looking for.

    So she has essentially shaped me into changing stuff all the time which makes it harder for both of us! So thank you Susan for bringing this up!!!!
    Makes me feel better that it is not just me and my students!

    Have a great time at Worlds!

    Kim Collins


  13. Susan in Spain says:
    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 11:00am

    Interesting post, I know my dogs have done plenty of that, now trying to be more observant in all our behaviours.

    Judith – is this the link that you need: http://fci2009austria.agilityvision.com/


  14. Judith Batchelor says:
    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 10:36am

    Ever since Skill Camp I have been observing my dog and trying to recognize where he has shaped me and put a stop to those behaviours, there are quite a few. I definatly identify with the retrieve part of your blog.

    Susan- last year there was a blog posted somewhere that we could follow what was going on at the worlds. There were pictures and daily updates it was great to follow- Is anyone on the Canadian team doing that this time?



  15. Emily says:
    Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 9:56am

    Interesting…. That’s very interesting.

    My CAT is pretty good at shaping our behaviour. He knows that if he carries on and yowls and throws enough of a tantrum that he’ll get his supper early. Lol!


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