Dog Training 101 Ep. 3: Shaping

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Shaping is the one where you wait for the dog to perform tiny steps in the right direction, and you reward those tiny steps until eventually, the dog is doing the desired thing. It’s kind of like a guessing game, where the dog guesses what you want them to do.

First, some terms you should know

Criteria: the thing the dog has to do to earn the reward, at any given step. For example, if I were to teach a dog to walk backwards on cue, one of the first criteria might be shifting their weight backward, then the next criteria might be taking a single step backward.

Offering behaviors: this is the technical term for the dog’s “guesses.” These are the different things the dog does to see if they’ll earn a mark and reward.


For our shaping demonstration, we’re teaching Hazel to lie down on a mat. First criteria: I want her to glance toward the mat. So I set things up in a way that makes it really easy for her to be successful at that.

  • Next criteria: touching the mat
  • Next: at least one paw on the mat (nose touches don’t count anymore)
  • Next: sit on the mat
  • Next: lie down on the mat
  • Next: add the cue, the same way we talked about in the Lure/Reward episode


Shaping tips

Before you can really dive in to teaching tricks with shaping, you have to teach your dog how to play this “guessing” game. Dogs don’t start out understanding that they have to offer behaviors. An easy trick to teach shaping is the Hand Target: hold out your hand next to the dog’s face, and mark when he looks at it. Then you mark for leaning their head toward your hand, then you mark for touching your hand, then you move the hand further away so he has to walk to reach it, etc.

Another thing you can do is the 1000 Things to do With a Box Game. Get a cardboard box, and mark and reward EVERYTHING the dog does with the box. In the video, note the difference between Merlin and the others – Merlin is an old pro at this shaping stuff, and he knows that when I get out my clicker and I stand there and stare at him, he should just start doing stuff and see what works.

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