I love shaping. I love that it makes our dogs really think about what they’re doing. I love that it makes me a better trainer because I have to watch for small changes and not ask for too much all at once. I love that the final behavior is very strong because the dog herself figured it out.

I wanted very badly to teach Risa a freestyle trick using shaping alone. For her Advanced routine, I have a segment involving a prop: a basketball. I wanted her to go out and around it then come back. I figured it was an easy way to get more distance work in our routine and I know how much Risa likes to run. So I placed the basketball on the ground and I waited. I clicked her when she showed interest in the ball so that she would understand the game has to do with it. After a multitude of resets when she started batting the ball with her paws (she is very foot-oriented), I eventually got her to stop smacking it. But that’s all I could get. My dog standing next to the ball staring at me. I adjusted my position to see if I could get her to move towards it. I moved again. It wasn’t working.

This happened over several sessions. Eventually I would get Risa to stop batting the ball but then I would get nothing else from her. She would either stand and stare at me or shift positions. I knew part of the problem was that we’d spent so much time working on platforms and positions downstairs. That’s why she kept adjusting her spot hoping that would be right and she’d earn the click. She just didn’t understand that I wanted her to work with the ball. I was getting frustrated. She was getting frustrated.

I could have taken the basketball somewhere else to work with her to determine if that might change her frame of mind away from position work. But the basement is really the best place to train. So I had to give up on my plan. I wasn’t going to be able to straight shape this behavior.

I pulled out my training gates and made a ‘U’ around the ball. I started to click/treat when Risa moved towards it and, eventually, around it. I still had to reset the ball a few times after she knocked it over (she just loves using her paws) but I was making progress. I added in some work with the target stick to get her to move around the ball. Eventually, I was able to fade out both the gates and the stick and get a decent final behavior.

It was a weak behavior by the time competition rolled around. She did it once or twice but not with enthusiasm or drive. I could tell she didn’t quite understand it well enough for it to withstand the stress of competition. (She did, of course, remember how to swat it! 🙂 )

Winter is typically our downtime in regards to competition which gives me lots of time to polish things up before we start again in the spring. I’m extremely pleased with how well her “dunk” behavior has progressed. I backchained a portion of it to get her to drive to the end. Besides, running through my legs is one of her favorite things to do. While I don’t quite have the speed and determination to go to the ball, she whips around it to come back to me. 🙂

I still love shaping but, sometimes, you have to adjust your expectations and training plan when things aren’t coming together.

About Jamie

I'm just a traditionally-trained artist with interests in dog training. I currently teach classes at the local obedience training club (tricks, freestyle, and Rally-FrEe) and I also teach classes professionally for an organization who helps veterans train their own service dogs.
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