The Magic of Shaping

The Magic of Shaping by Pamela Dennison
© May 2005. May not be reprinted without written approval.
This article is not to be confused with my DVD of a similar title (The Magic of Shaping; Explore the Possibilities)

In my article in the Jul/Aug 2005 issue of The APDT Chronicle of the Dog, I spoke a great deal about the importance of teaching aggressive dogs core/foundation behaviors before working on the systematic desensitization process. There is another aspect of a solid foundation—the dogs “inner” foundation, if you will. What I mean by that is self-assurance, ability to cope or lack thereof, and the motivation to act in certain ways. We all know dogs—even those from the same litter that act differently from one another—even those raised in the same environment. Some are bold, some shy, some are fearful, some unflappable no matter what comes down the pike, and others freak out at the slightest change.

So how does one tap into the dogs “inner foundation?”

Many years ago, when I first heard about free-shaping, I thought it was silly and a waste of time. Why not just lure or tell the dog what you want him to do? Then a friend of mine showed me what she had taught her dogs to do by free-shaping and I was suitably impressed. I tried it out on my own dogs to teach weave poles and other agility tasks and was completely hooked (as were my Border Collies). Beau was terrified of the agility equipment and free-shaping helped him get over his fear of the contact obstacles. Before free-shaping, even the sight of a teeter or “A” frame would send him running away in abject fear.

I wanted to try it with my Sheltie Cody, but was a little concerned that he wouldn’t offer me anything. I had started his training using traditional methods, which most certainly doesn’t allow for independent thinking. Although at the time, I hadn’t used aversives with Cody in seven years, he was reluctant to offer anything. If he made a mistake, he would frequently freak out (as in run away from me) or shut down (stand in an awkward position, freeze and stare off into space), even if I gave him a treat for “failing.” (I wanted to show him it was okay to fail sometimes—that I wasn’t going to hurt him anymore.) I was determined to try free shaping with him anyway. I sat down on the floor with a bucket of food, a clicker, a smile and an expectant look on my face. No matter what he gave me—an ear flick, bark, head turn, eye blink—anything whatsoever, he got a click and treat. Because it didn’t matter what he offered me, there was no way he could be wrong. He picked up the concept in about ten minutes and we ended the session with him pawing the ground. With that one initial session, I was able to wipe the fear off his face and regain the trust I had lost so long ago.

One day I was working on teaching some core behaviors with an aggressive dog and decided to see if she would free-shape for us. I picked something simple—”put your front feet in the car tire that was lying flat on the ground.” Within minutes, she had done it! I then decided to teach her to ride a skateboard. Again, within minutes she had put her front feet on the board and moved it an inch or so and seemed quite pleased with herself.

At this point, I thought, “Wow, this is pretty cool. This dog is really smart. I wonder if the other aggressive dogs I am working with could benefit from this?” So I tried it, and each and every aggressive dog became quite proficient at free-shaping. It didn’t matter what we taught the dog to do—they picked it up very quickly.

One very stormy, freezing morning at my aggressive dog class, we decided to work inside my building (because it is only 1700 square feet, we normally work outside). There isn’t much room to safely heel around or do other moving types of behaviors—not with two aggressive dogs that need a great deal of room to be comfortable. (I only work two dogs at a time inside.) So, I divided the room in half using baby gates (more for a visual separation than a real protected contact situation) and set up the skateboard on one side and the tire on the other side. I had the dogs come in and the owners were instructed to work on their “task” of free-shaping. I have to say, we were all pretty nervous about this context. The dogs had never been in my building before with another dog there and I wasn’t really sure how this would work out. They were all told, “Whatever happens, don’t drop the leash!!”

A very interesting and fascinating phenomena occurred. Neither dog aggressed at each other or at the rest of us standing around watching. They were quite engrossed in the task at hand and much too busy to bother with us. Even when we applauded and loudly cheered their successful efforts (we were so excited that we forgot we were watching aggressive dogs!), the only reaction we got was a calm look, a relaxed facial expression and a gentle tail wag. When the next two dogs came in the building, we tried it again and got the same results—two very excited working dogs that exhibited no aggression.

Over and over again, with each class, (indoors or outdoors) we did more and more free-shaping. Over and over again, the dogs remained calm and focused. The more complicated the task, the more unperturbed the dogs became with their provoking stimuli close by (and in fact, their provoking stimuli were much closer than they had ever been before). Not once did the dogs aggress during a free-shaping session.

I started to think about what was really going on. What was it about free-shaping that caused the dogs to not only focus on their owners, but make the sight of their provoking stimuli a non-issue? I think it is more than just attention to their owners and more than the core behaviors.

Free-shaping is a multi-faceted “methodology,” for lack of a better word. It teaches the owner how to teach and become quite surgical in the precision of clicking and food delivery. It teaches them how to break behaviors down into very small approximations and to be quiet to allow the dogs the opportunity to think.

Free-shaping adds another aspect to the learning process, and what the click really means. Many dogs are clicker trained, but they still have a tendency to wait for the handler to tell them what to do. Free-shaping teaches them that their behavior actually makes you click. It teaches the dog that it’s okay to problem solve and offer behaviors. The great thing about having a dog that now offers behaviors willingly, is that the dog can learn that he can influence his environment, which can lead to more positive behavior outcomes.

Many dogs start out being aggressive because they are afraid. Some may have been going through a fear period and it was handled incorrectly. Some dogs may have been attacked by other dogs, creating a fearful or aggressive dog. Some may have been inadvertently reinforced for aggressing. Whatever the reason, the result is quite often a dog that lacks confidence and appropriate coping skills (or we don’t like the way they are utilizing their coping devises—such as active aggression/lunging/biting).

So now put together all of the great benefits of free-shaping and add those to working with an aggressive dog. Just seeing their aggressive dog learn to solve these mental puzzles is quite exciting for the handler. They often start to think, “Maybe my dog really can learn to be more like other “normal” dogs.” They become immersed in the free-shaping process and extremely tuned into their dog. The growing connection between dog and handler is a beauty to behold. The handler also gains enthusiasm and dedication to stick with the long haul of the systematic desensitization process

The dogs I have worked with appear to become totally engaged in the learning process with free-shaping. Once they understand the concept, they start to pick up all new behaviors faster and faster. Free-shaping in the presence of other dogs that are also busy free shaping creates a wonderful climate of concentrated attention to their owner and they are not reacting to their provoking stimuli. The dogs are well aware of the other dogs in close proximity and they chose not to aggress. Even if we are not working on free-shaping for a particular session, the dogs give the owners much more attention then they did before learning how to free-shape.

This is a short story to help illustrate how free-shaping can help an aggressive dog; I am working with an aggressive Neapolitan Mastiff mix, named Moby and his owner, Trish. Although we put no pressure on him whatsoever (we just let him roam the room on his own with treats scattered all over and if he went up to Trish, he got extra treats), he would often shut down and just lay on the floor in a lump. After he had learned some basic skills, I just had this gut feeling that he was exceedingly insecure and decided the time was right for free-shaping. Very slowly and carefully, we taught him to free-shape putting his front feet in the tire. This first behavior was quite hard for him. Once he understood the concept of offering behaviors, he became a free-shaping fiend. In just a few weeks we taught Moby to balance on a Buja Board (A piece of plywood with a ball screwed in underneath. The dog steps on it and it tips in all different directions – pretty scary for a fearful dog!), put his front feet up on a chair, ride the skateboard, nose target a yogurt container lid, close a door, shake paw and wave. Each time we added in a new behavior, we were astonished at how fast he learned his new task. Trish was on her way to becoming a very good trainer and starting to look at Moby in a new and positive light.

Because of the fun, and yes, mostly useless stuff he was learning to do, he became quite comfortable with me (less signs of stress) and started to come up to me in a happy and relaxed manner. He took food gently from me and would do simple behaviors when I asked him to. The look in his eyes went from a hard stare with huge pupils (pretty scary!) to a nice relaxed and softened look. Sometimes, Moby would roll around on the floor, scratching his back and exposing his substantial belly to our accompanying giggles.

One day, I wanted to try free-shaping another behavior (doing a figure eight around two cones with no luring). It was too hard to explain to Trish, so I picked up the clicker and some treats and started to free-shape Moby myself. He was a little nervous at first (his body and face stiffened slightly, tail was tucked) and so I gave him some extra treats, just for thinking (and not biting me…). We worked on that one behavior for a few minutes and he learned to go around one cone. I decided to end the session and go for a walk. We all went out into the 100 acre field next to my building and got the thrill of our lives. Moby started racing around like a puppy, play bowing to me, then rolling over on his back, then back up, repeating the process a few times while we were cheering, clapping and laughing.

The following week, after a few minutes of me free-shaping Moby to do the weave poles, we decided to see if we could interest him in a toy. For the first time since Trish had rescued him, he played with a toy—shook it, flung it up in the air, chased it and brought it back. Free-shaping did not miraculously cause Moby to spontaneously play with a toy, however, it did cause him to be more relaxed and less stressed. (Many dogs won’t play with toys if they are stressed.) With the advent of free-shaping, Trish observed that Moby’s behavior in “real life” was becoming much more relaxed. He was now not stressed in situations where he had previously reacted.

Perhaps this can all be explained by the fact that the owners of these aggressive dogs are becoming better trainers with better teaching skills and more confident people overall. Perhaps it is because we are teaching the dogs tons of useless (and useful) behaviors in a more fun and exciting manner. Perhaps dogs can learn more effectively with free-shaping, rather than using other methods such as lure and reward or “traditional” training. It can enable the dog to develop a relationship with his owner that would not likely be possible outside of using the free shaping process.

If, in the past, aversives were used to “correct” a behavior or the aggression issue, this can greatly suppress the dog’s behavioral repertoire, and add the stress of the punishment into the mix. Free-shaping is a great way to develop a dog that is more likely to problem solve by trying new and different things, and this can lead to learning alternate and incompatible behaviors faster. With that, coupled with the desensitization process, they will then learn to react in a more appropriate manner for our human society. By learning new behaviors, the dog can develop a new behavioral relationship with his owner that can lead to more effective learning and communication between them. With this comes the ability to accept what was once scary. Most certainly we can’t know exactly what our dogs are thinking; however, we can observe a change in overall behavior. And most certainly I will not be abandoning teaching the core behaviors, but with the addition of the element of free-shaping, the aggressive dogs I work with continue to make faster progress in the systematic desensitization process.

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