Getting Un-Stuck While Shaping

To follow up on a comment written on  yesterday’s blog; what do we do when we are shaping one thing but our dogs get “stuck” offering something she already knows.

My first choice is to set things up in my favor to avoid this from ever happening.  Two big things that will help are;

  1. Your body position. When I shape behaviours sometimes I stand, other times I sit in a chair or sit on the floor, or kneel on the floor — all of can become part of why the dog offers what she does.  Knowing what your posture is and what you have shaped in a similar posture will help avoid these erroneous offerings from your dog.
  2. Manipulate your environment. Reduce the number of possible wrong choices for the dog by manipulating the environment as much as possible prior to starting your session. From yesterday’s example if you know your dog will want to offer targeting with a rear paw then start your session with the dog on a chair or in a box — just shaping head movement to start. Or use a target stick, patch, mat etc to help convey what you want.

The best solution is to have a great plan before you start a shaping session so you can avoid confusing or frustrating the dog in the midst of a session and I want to stress this is what I will do first. Often times if my dogs “obsesses” on a previously reinforced response I stop the session, put the dog away (with a big handful of cookies) and look at my plan — because clearly it was lacking!

Before you read on, re-read what I just wrote. My first choice is always to alter the environment I am working in. Knowing the reason my dog is doing what she is doing is because I did not plan my session well enough to begin. Why continue to frustrate my dog because I didn’t “set the stage” well enough for her to start!

So, lets suppose you have done everything correctly and still your dog gets “stuck” what are your options then?

  1. End the session and re-group. That should always be a strong option. Re-think, re-plan, re-do is not failure and it often times is the best thing to do.
  2. Wait the dog out?  Just holding your position and waiting for something different I find causes way more frustration in a dog then is necessary. Think about it from the dogs point of view. She is continuing to offer you a response that previously you have reinforced. Perhaps (thinks the dog) you are just trying to build duration or increase the number of repetitions for the response she is offering. Waiting until the response is extinguished may lead to the dog just giving up on your session altogether. I am not saying this won’t work, just it wouldn’t be my first choice.
  3. Give a NRM to let the dog know you won’t reward that? Personally not my choice as I prefer not to interfere. As soon as you give the dog a verbal cue, you are controlling. However I am not apposed to letting the dog know I am not interested in what she is currently doing in a more subtle way.
  4. Communicate “try something different” to the dog with a subtle cue from your body language.

Lets say my session started with me shaping a response from a chair. If my dog got “stuck” on a response I could;

a) Just lean back in my chair and avert my eyes away from the dog — immediately leaning forward once my dog stops offering the undesired response. It is a “Game on – Game Off” body language thay my dogs completely understand.
b) Start breaking up my treats, taking my focus completely way from what the dog is doing (but watching peripherally in order to see a change I can reward).
c) Turn my back away from the dog entirely. I am less likely to do this one as it is too severe a punisher for a shaping session. However I will do this if the behaviour the dog is obsessing on is barking at me.

5. Another tack I may take when my dog gets stuck while shaping is to stop the reinforcement the dog is getting by offering the response. Depending upon the dog and the response, interrupting the response may be quick and effective. I won’t say anything to the dog, but I will just stop the pattern. I may do that with a collar grab (which is a game all of my dog’s know and carries tons of reinforcement). Or I may just move my body to prevent what the dog is attempting.

Whatever you do remember you goal is to create a fun, productive, effective and efficient training session. Yes all four criteria are important!

Today I am grateful for the great group of students coming in for this weekend’s Contact Training Workshop. Will be a good one for certain!

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