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Every dog is different, even when it comes to training. What works for one might not work for another. Thankfully, there are many ways to teach a new behavior. For example, you might try lure and reward training where you lead your dog into the desired behavior with a treat lure. Or you can capture a behavior by rewarding your dog when they do it on their own. But sometimes you want to train something complicated your dog doesn’t do often or perhaps your dog is struggling to follow a lure. In these cases, you can try shaping a behavior, which is basically building something by taking baby steps. Read on for shaping tips.

What is Shaping?

With shaping, you don’t teach the final behavior but rather break it down into smaller steps that build toward it. So, if you want to teach your dog to roll over, you could lure them all the way over, or you could shape it by starting with them lying on the ground. Then the next step would be lying on their side, then on their back, and so on until they have completed an entire roll over motion.

Before you start training, plan your sessions. Don’t just wing it as you go. That can lead to frustration for both you and your dog. Instead, break the final behavior into as many steps as you think your dog will need. But, once you start working with your dog, be ready to adjust on the fly if they get stuck or offer you more than expected.

Once you’re ready to go, set your criteria for step one. Reward your dog anytime they produce that first level action. Don’t worry about step two until your dog is performing the first step consistently. When they are, you can increase your criteria by one step. Now you stop rewarding the step one behavior and only reinforce step two. And so on as you build toward the final action.

But how do you get your dog to move from one step to the next? Well, there is always some degree of variation in behavior. For example, each time your dog lies down there’s the possibility their position will be slightly different – sometimes they might have their back feet tucked under them but other times they might roll onto one hip. And that hip roll is one step closer to rolling over. Your dog’s impatience will also play a role. They might try new things to earn a treat. So, you must be observant and watch for these changes so you can adjust what you’re rewarding accordingly.

The Benefits of Shaping

As you can probably imagine, shaping requires a bit more technical skill from the trainer than luring or capturing. You need to be patient, focused, and fast with your rewards. It can also help to train with a clicker or marker word to communicate with your dog the exact moment they did what you wanted. And that requires good timing.

So, why go to the extra effort? Because shaping can help you train behaviors that are difficult to get otherwise. It’s also great for working with fearful or aggressive dogs that don’t respond well to more interactive techniques like luring. Finally, shaping is great for dogs. It makes them an active part of the training process and teaches them to think for themselves. A shaping-savvy dog will start to offer behaviors as they anticipate what you’re looking for and try to earn their treat. They don’t wait to be shown what to do, they ask you, “is this what you want?” And that kind of mental exercise is always beneficial.

Poodle puppy being trained outdoors.

Shaping for Obedience, Trick Training, and Dog Sports

Shaping can help you teach obedience behaviors. For example, some dogs struggle to lie down on cue. If you break it down into its components such as looking at the ground, dropping the nose to the floor, bending the elbows, and so on, you can eventually have your dog happily lying down whenever you ask.

Shaping is also wonderful for teaching tricks and for dog sports like agility. You can train all kinds of fun behaviors by starting small and building. For example, dogs don’t naturally wave hello, but you can teach your dog to wave their paw at you with shaping. The following is a sample plan for training a wave:

  1. Click and reward your dog for lifting one paw off the ground. Choose either the right or left paw, whichever your dog is more likely to use, and stick with that paw through your training. If your dog won’t lift a paw, start by simply rewarding a shift in weight.
  2. Once your dog is lifting one paw off the ground 80-90 percent of the time, you can raise your criteria. Now only click and reward if they lift their paw to shoulder height. If that’s too far too fast, then raise your criteria an inch at a time.
  3. Once your dog is consistently lifting their paw to shoulder height, raise your criteria. Now only click and reward if there is any movement of the paw.
  4. Once your dog is consistently moving their paw, raise your criteria so you only reward an up and down movement.
  5. Once your dog is consistently moving their paw up and down, you can add a verbal cue and/or hand signal to the behavior.

You might need to adjust the plan above for your dog. Just be sure you don’t advance from one step to the next too quickly. Or conversely, don’t stay on one step for too long or your dog might get stuck thinking that’s the only thing you want. Finally, don’t move too far ahead at once. If you skip steps or expect your dog to make too far a leap between steps, you will only frustrate them.

Fun Shaping Games

You can also play shaping games with your dog. One of the classics is Karen Pryor’s 101 things to do with a box. All you need is a clicker, an empty box, and some delicious treats. Start by rewarding your dog for any interaction with the box and then go from there. You can end up with them sitting inside the box (this is fun to do with smaller and smaller boxes), pushing the box, pawing the box, or whatever else their actions and your imagination can dream up.

Related article: How to Teach Your Dog to Read