When Veronica Sanchez is asked, “How can you train your dog from your wheelchair?,” the answer is straightforward: her dog has learned to be a problem solver. By using a training method called shaping. Veronica can train her dog from almost any position, even while lying down. Shaping, as it applies to animal training, is defined as: Training a behavior by breaking it down into small steps, marking (usually with a clicker) and rewarding each step until the animal has learned the entire behavior. Shaping is a wonderful way for people of all ages and all ranges of training skills, to train their pet.
Shaping has been successfully used to train many species including marine mammals like dolphins. Dolphins are trained to do complex behaviors through the use of shaping. The flips and spins usually start out under water, and gradually get higher and higher, until they are above the surface of the water. Dogs, just like dolphins, can learn all types of behaviors through the use of shaping. They can learn simple behaviors like sit, down, or come, or complex behaviors like learning to be a service dog, learning how to run an agility course or doing search and rescue work. For instance, in agility, a dog can learn to touch an object with his nose or paws. Then the object is placed in certain positions around the course to ensure the dog is in the correct position. Service dogs can learn complex tasks like retrieving an emergency phone by the same method.
A simple behavior to shape is having a dog touch your hand with his nose. Hold your hand out with your palm facing your dog. Click (you can substitute the word “yes” if you don’t have a clicker) when your dog looks towards your hand and give him a treat. Your dog will learn that the click earns a treat and soon will start trying to earn more treats. As he starts to get the hang of it, wait for him to reach out toward your hand with his nose before you click. Then start looking for your dog to get closer to your hand each time, and eventually, your dog will actually touch your hand. Shaping teaches dogs to become problem solvers and with practice, they become faster at learning new skills. The fi rst time you try this technique it is a good idea to hire a trainer or behaviorist familiar with this method. It can be tricky to get the hang of it, but after a few sessions you too can shape up your pup or even your cat!
Brought to you by Kathy Minnick, Certified Dog Trainer and owner of The Animals’ House. 703-433-1300.