10.) Getting to the right behavior

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that your dog already knows everything. He knows how to sit, lie down, run, jump and more. The bad news is that your dog does not understand English. If we want our dog to understand what we want him to do, we need to communicate in his language. We already talked about the fact that dogs learn based on experience!

Now it is up to us to entice our dog to do something that can be rewarded and thus results in a positive experience for our dog. In the old days, this would have been the point where the dog trainer pulls out the pinch collar and a leash. We don’t want to do that. There are five different techniques that we will leverage to get our dog to offer a behavior: capturing, shaping, imitating, luring and molding.

Capturing. Simple behaviors can usually be “captured”. We speak about capturing when our dog offers a complete behavior by himself. The “Sit” behavior is a good example because dogs tend to sit down quite often. In such event, we just need to mark and reward the behavior while associating it with a verbal command.

Shaping. In the world of positive reinforced conditioning, shaping is the most common way to train more complex behaviors. By shaping, we mean to break down a more difficult behavior into many small pieces so our dog can learn them step-by-step. For example, your dog sits in front of you and you want it to get into the “Heel” position on your left side. You start out by lifting your arms and continue by turning your upper body to the left in an almost dancing-like fashion. At first, our dog is going to look at us with big eyes, wondering what the boss is doing… At some point, our dog is likely to turn slightly to the right to follow our motion. In precisely that moment, we mark his behavior and reward him. Once our dog understands what has caused the reward, he will repeat this behavior. At that point, we will reward him only for larger turns towards our left side up until he offers the entire behavior by himself. In my opinion, shaping offers the best and longest lasting training results. Shaping does not only help your dog to learn complex behaviors, it teaches him how to solve problems by himself. When I started out to use shaping as my primary training tool, Andy just stared at me wondering what I was up to. After some time and plenty of repetitions, we reached a point where I could clearly see that the penny had dropped. When confronted with a new challenge, Andy now starts to volunteer his entire arsenal on learned behaviors to see if I am looking for one of it. Sit?, Down?, Give paw? Bark? When he realizes that I am not looking for either of those, he gets even more innovative and you can clearly see that he is trying to figure out what I want him to do. This is quite an improvement from staring at me with a questioning look just weeks earlier.

Luring. We can use a piece of food or our dog’s favorite toy to “lure” him into a desired position. Luring can even be combined with shaping if your dog has initial problems to understand what you want him to do (although luring keeps him from developing his own problem solving skills). The “Sit” or “Down” commands can be easily taught with a piece of food as a lure. Once your dog has learned a new behavior reliably by luring, you can start to fade the lure and replace it with a simple body motion (move you hand towards the ground to get your dog into the down position).

Imitating. Adolescent wolfs learn many of their most important lessons by watching and imitating older pack mates. This learning by watching others is called imitating (or sometimes modeling). Unfortunately, most of us won’t be able to take advantage of this because dogs can’t really imitate human behavior. If you are lucky enough to have another, well socialized and trained dog around you should take advantage of it. Many behaviors can be easily trained this way (Stay, Come, Jump etc.). One word of caution: Dogs are like little children and you can be assured that if the older dog displays some unwelcome behavior, your youngster is likely to pick that up in no time as well

Molding. We speak about “molding” when we use any sort of physical assistance to get our dog into a desired position. This is the least effective and thus least desirable training method because our dogs don’t really learn anything when we use physical means to maneuver them around. Molding can be helpful if we use it in combination with a lure – the lure is used to get our dog moving and the physical assistance to make sure he always finishes in the correct position. Once this is the case, we still have to rely on shaping to make our dog understand that there won’t be a reward if our dog does not finish the learned behavior in the molded position.

(Note: This post belongs to a series of multiple articles about the fundamentals of positive dog training.
Click here to go to the overview page that allows you to easily navigate to each article in this series.)

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