Who’s Shaping Who?

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.

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

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