So I am watching my folk’s dog Cassie who has hurt the soft tissue in her elbow. She’s part Collie, part Duracell and goes 70 mph all day, every day. And I am in charge of keeping her calm for 10 days to heal… So what’s a bored Cassie dog to do? Training!
One way to train an animal is by a process called “Shaping.” Shaping is a training technique used to get little bits of behavior one step at a time. Think of it like walking up a flight of stairs. You want to get to the end result (the top), but there is a journey you must take to get there. If we think of something like roll over and simplify each step, it might look like this: 1. be able to get dog’s attention, 2. sit, 3. down, 4. lay sideways flat on floor, 5. roll body upward so tummy faces the ceiling, 6. roll entire body from left to right (or right to left). And if you think about it, you could break this behavior down into smaller bits. For those of you who grew up with the game show “Name That Tune,” remember how they would try to name the song in as few notes as possible? Well, shaping is the exact opposite. A good trainer will be able to see all the micro-steps it takes to achieve a behavior. When we don’t teach this way, we increase the criteria too fast and confuse the animal. This is called “lumping.” Could you realistically go 5 stairs at a time? Probably not. And what happens when you try? You slip and fall right back to the starting place with a dash of frustration to boot. Try this same technique a few more times and the desire to get to the top becomes as pleasant as another hole in the head. Learning a new behavior is no different. You can’t be a gold metal marathon runner if you’re not in shape. You can’t be in shape for a marathon unless you know how to run for a duration. You can’t run for a duration if you never learned how to run. You can’t run if you never learned to walk… Etc. Etc. Etc. So why are parents not gathering in droves for the annual Toddler Race down Times Square? Because that’s ridiculous! Absolutely ludicrous to think a toddler has the muscle tone and training for a task like that. So why do we constantly ask this of our pets? Too often the end goal is the main focus with unrealistic expectations on how to get there, or we skip steps to get a “false positive” end result that doesn’t stick.
One thing that gets my goat is only focusing on the end result. If you want to lose weight, are you going to go to the gym or go anorexic? Both will give you the same end result. But one will teach life habits for permanent results while the other is a temporary quick fix that doesn’t last.
Instead of asking for 5 steps at a time, Keep It Simple Stupid! You might go two or three steps at a time, if your learner makes the connections. But never count on learning jumps as a general rule. You need each step for clear basic understanding. Plus when learning seems easy and is taught in baby steps, learning is fun! The process of learning new behaviors is just as, if not more important than achieving the end result. And it is SO nice when an animal “learns how to learn.”
So what about Cassie?
Thankfully Cassie is already a clicker savvy dog with basic manners and self control. I need to give a shout out to my parents for all the training they have done with her to get her to the point she is at today. Pet sitting her is a joy, even if I have to “keep the Collie calm.” And even though Cassie is used to lots of physical activity each day, remember training is exercising the brain and can be just as exhausting.
So I decided to do “free shaping.” Free shaping is where the learner (your dog) offers any behavior, any movement at all. The teacher marks which movements get reinforced (I use clicker training.) And by rewarding consistent movements you can fine tune what you want. Since Cassie has an injury I thought this would be the best so she could decide what to move. And low and behold we got a fantastic head dip! At first she just sat there looking at me. Then for a brief moment she looked away. CLICK! (For the head turn.) Then she got the picture that moving her head paid. And in a few minutes she understood to move her head down. For right now as long as she points her cute pointy nose to the floor I’m happy. And for right now, as long as Cassie gets to do something, she’s happy. When she starts to feel better, I’ll work on head dips to the left and right. Or possibly I’ll change it so she lowers her head but keeps her nose parallel with the floor. Or maybe I’ll teach her to target her two front paws with her nose. There’s so much you could do with a simple head dip, and so many stair cases you could climb for so many different end results.
So the next time it’s too cold to exercise your dog, you want to teach your dog something new, or you have to “keep your Collie calm,” try shaping. Give your dog play by play details to follow. He’ll thank you for being so easy to understand!