When I first heard the term, “behavior shaping,” I was skeptical about the process because it involved using food. I had attended classes where a collar pop followed by praise was the normal procedure and food was considered an absolute NO. Today, twenty years after teaching behavior shaping in two puppy classes per week (about ten dogs in each class), I am an avid proponent of this way of doing things. I discovered that at this age, most pups seem to be created equal. After pups get beyond about four months, training may change some if you have a Dachshund or a Golden Retriever, but the stars of my puppy classes seem to be the Boxers, Shar-Peis, Bulldogs and Chihuahuas. As a trainer, this observation has never ceased to amaze me.
The use of food by itself does not insure successful behavior shaping. Where the treat is held, offered and given is of prime importance. It is necessary to pair the delivery of the food with praise as well, so that when you no longer have the food you will still have your verbal reward. Puppies are trained to walk on the leash, sit, down, stand, and come on a hand signal by properly using treats to shape these desired behaviors. For example, the sit is taught by holding the treat in palm of the hand by the thumb and delivered with the correct hand signal.
Just as correct behavior can be shaped, incorrect behavior or position can be shaped as readily. A good example of this happened recently in my Beginner obedience class with a young man and his five-month-old American Bulldog. A graduate of my Puppy class, this pup has had eleven lessons so far, and struts alongside his owner with that look we all strive for in our competition dogs. Since it can take six months to truly shape a behavior, the work of his owner is not over yet. This great start came from using proper techniques to shape the behavior we wanted.
Just as I am gloating over our success with this dog, we get to the recall across the room. The young dog flies to his owner, sits in front, turns his head to the left, and the owner reaches out and gives him a treat. Now the handler is shaping the wrong behavior! In training the front, treats delivered from hands that come from the sides of our body are shaping the behavior of looking at our hands. With large dogs, treats should be taken up to your chin and given from there to shape the behavior of looking up at your face, making it much easier for the dog to sit straight. With small dogs, the treat can be given between the knees. Sometimes handlers wonder why their dog lacks attention or eye contact. They may have unknowingly shaped inattention by giving treats while the dog is looking away. If a dog turns its back on the owner and the owner then reaches out to reward him, he has just begun shaping inattentive behavior as well.
Whether you want your dog to be a competition dog or a well-behaved pet, behavior shaping will make all the difference. Puppies taught to come on command consistently before the age of four months will always do so. Shaping the correct behavior and knowing the difference between correct and incorrect is all important. Ian Dunbar, the noted behaviorist, addressed these differences by relating the story of an owner watching his dog dig at the dog park. The owner called the dog to him; then punished it for digging. In reality, he was very effectively punishing the dog for coming, and made sure he most likely would not want to come to him in the future.
An example of how behavior shaping can not only be very successful but also useful comes from a student of mine in Utility class. Her Great Dane inspired us to shape behaviors for no other reason than it is really hard to move a 150-pound dog into an exact position. When this student’s dog would finish to heel position, she would point to the floor in front of her. After sitting, he would wrap his head around her to look at her right hand that usually held the treat. I suggested that she hold the treat with her left hand at shoulder height. This not only drew his attention up as he sat, but also shaped a correct sit at heel. It is much more desirable to shape a desired behavior than to try to correct an incorrect one.
Behavior shaping is the most valuable tool that a trainer can employ. Just make sure that the behavior you are shaping is the one you want. Remember, you get the behavior that you reward!