You Get Behavior Really Does Matter
three-part article was originally printed in Teaching Dogs magazine.
A sit is a sit
is a sit. When you get to a final, finished behavior, you wont
be able to tell whether the initial behavior was molded, lured, or captured,
so as long as it doesnt cause fear, pain, or distress to your
dog, it really doesnt matter what method you use to get behavior.
Or does it?
of getting behavior are not created equal, and none is right for every
trainer, every dog, and every situation. In this three part series,
were going to examine the most common dog-friendly methods of
getting behavior: social facilitation, molding, luring, targeting, capturing,
and shaping. In part one, well discuss the consequences of choosing
a particular method and overview the pros and cons of each. In parts
two and three, well explore each method in detail and look at
some practical applications.
the jigsaw puzzle
If you were
going to teach a small child to solve a jigsaw puzzle, how would you
do it? Would you put the childs hands on each piece, guiding it
into position? This would get this puzzle worked very quickly, but it
wouldnt help her learn how to solve the next one. Would you talk
her through it, verbally helping her through the process? Again, that
would get this puzzle worked fairly quickly. In fact, she would probably
learn to repeat those behaviors and soon be able to work this puzzle
herself. She might even learn a tip or two to help her with the next
But what if
your goal werent just this puzzle, but all jigsaw puzzles? Instead
of helping her, physically or verbally, you could let her work it out,
acknowledging correct choices and helping her work out strategies like
Straight edges go on the outside. It would probably take
her longer to work this first puzzle, but as she learned the concepts
she could apply to other jigsaw puzzles, her speed with subsequent puzzles
dog is similar to teaching a child to work a jigsaw puzzle. The method
you choose affects more than the behavior at hand. It affects your dogs
mind, teaching him how to learn, how to approach problems in the future.
your method, consider not only the immediate behavior but your overall
training goals. Is this a pet animal, who will learn only a small handful
of behaviors, owned by someone who desires a steady, predictable companion?
Or is this a performance dog, who will ultimately have a large repertoire
of behaviors, who may need to think on his feet in a working situation,
or who might benefit from problem-solving skills?
want a thinking dog. Others very definitely dont. Neither is right
or wrong, just desirable or undesirable for the tasks the dog will be
asked to do. Before you choose a training method, ask yourself the following
- How many
behaviors will this dog need to learn? The more behaviors you need
to teach, the more important it is to teach concepts that can be generally
applied to different behaviors.
- How quickly
do I need to train the behaviors? Some methods are faster for beginners
than others, but those methods tend to get the same results forever.
Other methods start slow but increase in efficiencybypassing
the initially faster methodsas the trainer and dog get more
- How precise
are the behaviors? Some methods are better-suited to larger, less
precise behaviors, and others excel with precise behavior.
- How skilled
is the primary trainer? Some methods are easier for beginners. Some
require both physical and mental skill.
- How interested
in training is the trainer? Not everyone who trains a dog aspires
to be a dog trainer. Some methods require more knowledge
and skill than others.
- How experienced
is the dog in each method? The more familiar a dog is with a particular
method, the more rapidly he will learn new behaviors taught with that
- Will the
dog need to think on his feet, or will he primarily respond
to well-known, well-rehearsed cues? Some methods teach the dog to
wait to be shown what to do. Others require the dog to figure out
whats needed. These habits carry over into their working lives.
Once you have
your answers, compare them against the training methods. All have pros
and consnone is a magic pill perfect for every dog and every trainer.
The six most common techniques for getting behavior are described below.
allelomimetic behavior, mimicry, social facilitation. While
these are each subtly different, they all fall into the category of
naturally occurring, non-training methods of learning. With
this method youre taking advantage of the dogs instincts
to get the behaviors you want. For example, many dogs will naturally
follow another dog. You could, then, pair that dog with a dog who has
a terrific off-leash recall to help build a habit of returning when
- Pros: These
natural methods of learning are ideal for the canine brain. They are
an excellent choice when working on simple behaviors with a group
- Cons: Although
there are numerous anecdotes of dogs learning trainer-defined skills
using these methods, depending on them to teach behaviors that arent
natural canine behavior is an iffy proposition. Bottom line: if it
works, terrific! But dont count it as a sure thing.
is physically guiding or otherwise compelling a dog to do a behavior.
Pulling up on the dogs collar while pushing down on his rear is
a method of molding a sit. Molding also includes the use of physical
props, such as working against a wall to force a straight heel or putting
tape on the dogs face to elicit a paw over the nose.
- Pros: Molding
is easily understood by humans, and thus its very easy for beginners.
Its a quick, easy way to teach large behaviors.
- Cons: Though
good for large behaviors, molding is limiting for trainers who want
more precise or advanced behaviors, and it requires a great deal of
trainer participation, which then has to be faded from the picture.
The dog has to do very, very little thinkinghis body is set
up to perform the desired behavior.
is a hands-off method of guiding the dog through a behavior. Lures are
usually food but may be target sticks or anything else the dog will
follow. A common method of luring the sit is to hold food in front of
the dogs nose, and then move the food up and back. As the dogs
head follows the food, generally the back end will drop to the floor.
- Pros: Luring
is fast and flexible, and its easy for beginners.
- Cons: Lures
must be faded early or they become part of the behavior, and properly
fading a lure is not easy for beginners. Luring, like molding, requires
little mental effort by the dog. Youre telling him everything
he needs to know, and helping the dog becomes habitualfor both
at its most basic, is the behavior of touching a specified surface with
a particular body part. In practice, targeting is much more flexible.
Targets can be used to position an animal, to manipulate its body position,
or transferred to a different surfaceor used in combination to
get incredibly complex behaviors.
- Pros: Basic
targeting is a simple, easy to teach behavior that can be generalized
to different body parts fairly easily. Targeting is fast.
- Cons: After
the initial behavior is taught, this method requires little mental
effort by the dogthe trainer gives the dog all the information
he needs. Trainer participation is heavy and must be faded.
In capturing, the trainer waits for the dog to offer the behavior,
then marks and rewards it. Simple!
- Pros: Capturing
is easy for beginners if the desired behavior occurs frequently. Even
better, it requires mental effort from the dog to figure out why its
- Cons: Unfortunately,
capturing is limited to naturally-occurring behaviorsits
not likely you can capture a competition-perfect drop on recall. The
trainer has to be ready to capture the behavior when its offered.
is a technique of training a complex behavior by teaching, and gradually
building upon, the behaviors individual responses. To shape a
spin, a trainer might start with just a glance to the left. Then a glance
and a weight shift. Then a glance, a weight shift, and movement of a
front paw, continuing until the dog is performing a complete spin.
- Pros: The
clicker makes shaping a powerful technique, enabling incredibly precise
behaviors. Its flexibility is unmatched. Once the trainer and dog
are skilled with the method, shaping is extremely fast. Best of all,
shaping requires significant mental effort, creativity, and problem-solving
ability by the dog.
- Cons: Shaping
requires good observational skills, and until those are developed,
shaping can be frustrating to the trainer. It also requires the ability
to break behavior into small enough increments that your dog remains
consistently successful. If the trainer cant do this, the dog
can get frustrated. Shaping can be frustrating to dogs and trainers
who arent method-savvy, arent comfortable experimenting,
or arent good problem-solvers. Until the dog and trainer are
experienced, especially if they lack a mentor to help them learn the
method, progress can be slow.
In parts two
and three of this series, well look at each of these methods in
detail. As you compare your goals with the pros and cons of the different
methods, you may find that there are conflicts. Perhaps you have a working
dog who needs to problem-solve, but youre under a strict, tight
time-table. Maybe you aspire to a sport like canine freestyle which
emphasizes both precision and creativity, but both you and your dog
have a learned reliance on lures. Dont lose faith. As we delve
into these techniques, well give you specific tips and tricks
for solving those problems.
In the last
issue, we discussed how the method used to get behavior influences how
dogs approach that and other problem-solving situations. In short, how
you get behavior affects how dogs learn and think. No one method for
getting behavior is perfect for every dog, every behavior, or every
trainer, however. Each has pros and cons. In this issue were going
to look in depth at three dog-friendly methods of getting behavior:
social facilitation, molding, and luring.
allelomimetic behavior, mimicry, social facilitation
In these closely-related
methods of getting behavior, youre taking advantage of an instinctive
desire to do what others are doing to get what you want. Dogs are not
known as mimickers. You cannot, for example, have one dog demonstrate
a perfect finish, and then expect the other dogs in the class to copy
it. Yet, they still have a tendency to repeat some naturaluntrainedbehaviors
that other dogs do.
if one dog in a group begins to bark, the others frequently bark. If
one gets up and goes outside, the others often follow. If you signal
a recall for one, the others may come in as well. Observations at a
doggy daycare show this tendency quite clearly
groups of dogs
tend to run, bark, and even lie down to nap at the same time.
working dogs have taken advantage of this tendency for generations.
Its common to pair new dogs with older, experienced dogs. Sometimes
this pairing is quite literalyoung fox hounds are braced with
older hounds so they have no choice but to follow the older dogs
lead. In some kennels, the training of the young hounds is done exclusively
by the older dogs.
multiple dogs can take advantage of this method for simple, natural
behaviors if they have one dog who is already fluent. Cue a recallor
sit or down or other behaviorand reward the dogs who respond.
Many dogs will respond just because the other dog did it. And those
who dont may be motivated to figure out why the others are getting
allelomimetic behavior may be used to modify the emotional state of
the dog. Allelomimetic behavior is mutual mimicry. It includes
not only acting like, but also feeling like.
And it isnt limited to dog-dog interactions. Tense handlers have
tense dogs. Calm handlers have calm dogs. Households experiencing unexpected
acute stress may have dogs exhibiting unprovoked aggression or other
stress displacement behavior. Trainers can use this tendency by modeling
the calm, focused emotional state they want their dogs to exhibit.
examples of social facilitation and other instinctive methods of learning
- A group of
daycare dogs sitting quietly when the gate is opened
dogs following suit the very first day!
- Young puppies
and adolescent dogs performingand later repeatingrecalls
at the dog park because their older playmates respond to the cue.
- A dog learning
behaviors as varied as pushing a box along the floor and walking backwards
by copying the behavior of another dog being rewarded for those behaviors.
The final example
is the most controversial. Repeated laboratory experiments have concluded
that dogs are not capable of learning by observation. However the training
world is filled with anecdotal evidence disputing that. The bottom line
is this: Try it. If it works, youve found an easy solution ideal
for the canine brain. If it doesnt, simply try something else.
Molding is a
method of setting the dog up so that he must perform the behavior. It
includes physically compelling behavior or using props. Trainers sometimes
use the term modeling interchangeably with molding. Technically
this is incorrect. Modeling more accurately refers to demonstrating,
rather than compelling, a behavior. Examples of molding include standing
on a dogs leash to force him into a down or putting a scrunchie
on a dogs paw to elicit a wave or a limp.
a bad reputation among clicker trainers. Although it includes techniques
as innocent as heeling next to a wall to encourage the dog to move in
a straight line, trainers, associating the method with force, often
dismiss molding entirely. Unfortunately, by doing so they risk ignoring
a method that could potentially make learning easier for their pet-owner
Some pet owners
are not interested in dog training. They dont want to become good
trainers. They arent interested in theory. They simply want their
dog to obey simple cues and live harmoniously in their homes. For some
of these people, molding is both clearer and easier than other methods.
If they are successful, and the specific technique they use doesnt
hurt or frighten the dog, why not take advantage of the method?
Of course, the
method does have drawbacks. To be used successfully, the compulsion
shouldnt trigger the dogs opposition reflex. The common
techniques of pushing on a dogs hips to get a sit or stepping
on a leash to get a down are poor training choices because the dogs
natural response is to resist. Instead, use the opposition reflex to
your advantage. Got a dog who shifts his weight backwards in a show
stance? Tug lightly on his tailand watch him resist the backwards
pull by shifting his weight to the fore.
and more accepted use of molding is the use of propswire guides
through the weave poles, a piece of tape on the nose to encourage hide
your eyes, a channel to force a straight approach on a recall.
The problem with these and most other examples of molding is that the
props and trainer participation has to be faded from the picture, and
thats not always easy, especially for beginners.
Molding is similar
to allelomimetic behavior in that both can be used to effect a change
of emotional state. Emotions and physical positionbody languageare
closely linked. So closely linked, in fact, that scientists have an
ongoing argument about which comes first! Regardless, it is possible
to change a dogs emotional state by having him perform behaviors
consistent with a different emotion. For example, a dog has trouble
maintaining aggressive behavior when hes wagging his tail.
change in emotional state occurs even if the dog isnt volunteering
the behavior. In other words, molding the mannerisms associated with
a particular emotional state can create that state. If your dog is growling
at the end of his leash, try smoothing his hackles and lowering his
tail to calm him.
Luring is a
hands-off method of guiding the dog through a behavior. Lures are usually
food but may be target sticks or anything else the dog will follow.
The method is incredibly simple. Using the food or other lure to control
the movement of the dogs head, the dog is maneuvered so that his
body performs the desired behavior.
Luring is a
very, very popular method of positive training. Its fast, its
flexible, and its generally easy for beginners. Because its
hands-off, its considered superior to molding. After all, the
dog performs the behavior of his own volition!
the dog is focusing on the food, hes not focusing on what his
body is doing. Fading the lure, and making the jump from guided performance
to offered performance, is a feat that makes this seemingly simple method
far more complex. Some trainers mitigate this problem by turning the
lure into a hand signal cueing the behavior. Others keep the dogs
brain in the game by using a non-food lure, like a target stick. Still,
despite these drawbacks, skilled and unskilled trainers are able to
use luring to produce a huge variety of behaviors.
If luring is
both dog- and trainer-friendly, why do some clicker trainers complain
that luring isnt true clicker training? When using
the lure, the click is essentially superfluous. The reinforcer can be
delivered at the moment the behavior is complete, the conditioned reinforcer
imparts no additional information.
But the real
problem with luring is that the trainer is doing all of the work. She
tells the dog everything he needs to know, helps him through every stepand
helping the dog becomes habitual, for both of them. For a hobby trainer,
this may not be a problem, but for a serious trainer, a dog who cannot
problem-solve, who cannot work his way through a puzzle, is ultimately
When I hear
a trainer complaining that he really cant see what the big deal
about clicker trainer is or that he isnt getting the mind-blowing
results that other claims, almost invariably I find that he is luring
Each of the
three methods for getting behavior that we discussed is a valid way
of getting behavior, each with significant prosand significant
cons. Social facilitation and other related methods are excellent when
working with a group of dogs, but are limited primarily to naturally
occurring behaviors. Molding and luring are easy and beginner-friendly,
and luring is extremely flexible, but neither requires much mental effort
by the dog, and both require significant fading of trainer participation.
In the final
installment of this series well look at three more dog-friendly
methods of getting behavior: targeting, capturing, and shaping. Then,
once weve got a comprehensive view, well tackle once and
for all the question of Which method should I choose?
In the first
two installments of this series we discussed how training method affects
how dogs think and learn, and we looked in depth at social facilitation,
molding, and luring. In this final installment, well look at the
pros and cons of three more dog-friendly methods of getting behaviortargeting,
capturing, and shapingand well formulate some realistic
strategies for choosing the best method for achieving your training
frequently lumped in with luring, and, indeed, the two methods have
much in common. But targeting has some unique characteristics and deserves
to be considered on its own merits.
a specific spot with a nose or pawis frequently one of the first
behaviors budding clicker trainers ever learn. Some teach their dog
to touch the end of a target stick, and then use the stick to lure the
dog through future behaviors. Others teach their dogs to touch their
finger, their palm, or something like a margarine lid.
For many, this
simple touch is all the targeting they do. Others go a step further,
generalizing the touch cue to get their dogs to interact with other
objects or using targets placed in specific places to move their dogs
around. Common uses of targeting include:
the touch to a door or a light switch to teach common service dog
a dog to pick up an indicated object
specific areas of the contact obstacles in agility
- Teach the
dog to go out to the ring fence in competition obedience
are going even further with their targeting. First, they teach their
animals to target with different body parts. They might have separate
cues for targeting with each front paw, each back paw, shoulders, hips,
nose, chin, and chest! Then they use a series of targets and combinations
of these cues to create chains of behaviors.
to teach a dog to pray, a trainer could ask the dog to sit,
cue him to target his left front paw to the trainers knees, cue
him to target his right front paw on top of his left paw, and then cue
him to target his chin to his chest. Chain it together, and youve
got a fast route to complex, precise trick!
has been used with great success in zoos and aquaria for many years.
With exotic animals, its often difficult to use a traditional
lure because the trainer has limited (if any) contact. Targets give
those trainers a limited set of powerful, well-known behaviors that
they can call on for a variety of uses.
Uses I have
seen include teaching each member of a group of chimpanzees to go to
and remain at his own target while the trainer works another member
of the group; teaching an elephant to continuously target a spot with
his forehead and then, one at a time, targeting a hole in a fence with
each foot so his nails and foot pads can be cared for; and teaching
a gorilla to grip and hold a bar, which is moved further down a sleeve,
so eventually he is presenting his arm for blood draws.
targeting is both fast and flexiblecreative trainer can use targeting
to teach most any behavior. But the method does have some drawbacks
as well. Unlike luring, the target and trainer participation cant
always be fashioned into a hand signal used to cue the behavior. Trainer
participation is high, and its not always easy to fade the target
and the trainer from the picture, especially for beginners.
the level of problem-solving performed by the dog is limited. After
the initial targeting is taught, other behaviors are simply combinations
of the initial behaviors chained or back-chained together. The trainer
shows the animal exactly what is required and continues to show him
until he learns the pattern. Since all the information is provided to
him, theres just no need for creative problem solving.
usually the first hands off training technique tried by
most new clicker trainers. The concept is incredibly simple: When the
dog does what you want, click and reinforce it!
necessarily limited to behaviors that occur naturally in their finished
form. Its rather unlikely that the average dog is going to offer
a full set of weaves the first (or second or third or
) time he
sees the poles, but its a pretty good bet that hes going
to sit, lie down, or bark at some point.
limited to behaviors that occur with enough frequency that the dog can
figure out a pattern to the click. It seems obvious to us what were
clicking, but the dog may not be focused on that particular aspector
any aspectof his behavior at that moment. Its only with
consistent capturing of that behavior that he can figure out the common
denominator of each clicked situation.
Like the Boy
Scouts of America, the motto of any trainer who wants to capture behavior
should be Be Prepared! Behavior happens quickly, and if
you arent ready, an opportunity to catch it can be missed. This
doesnt mean you have to follow your dog around, clicker in hand,
twenty four hours a day. Instead, identify the times that the behavior
most commonly occurs or the events that generally precede the behavior
and be ready to capture the behavior then. For example, to capture a
bow, catch your dog when he is stretching after waking from a nap.
is limited to the frequently-occurring behaviors included in a dogs
personal repertoire, it ranks fairly high on problem-solving ability
because the click is the only information given. The dog must experiment
to work out what he can do to earn a reinforcer. Happily, nearly all
of the behaviors desired by pet owners occur frequently enough to be
captured. Its quite easy to teach a complete beginners classeven
a class of pet owners with no desire to become trainersusing only
to capturing is that it teaches new trainers to anticipate behavior
and to see the smaller responses that occur just before the desired
behavior. This, of course, is the first step on the road to shaping.
Shaping is sometimes
portrayed as the Holy Grail of clicker trainers. Some go so far as to
say any method other than shaping isnt real clicker training.
Its perceived complexities terrify neophytes and some experts. Some
are too intimidated to try. Others, discouraged by their first fumbling
attempts, decide it isnt worth the effort. Others follow the instructions
but find their dogs didnt read the same manual. What, then, is
so great about shaping? In a word, power. Unlimited power.
Before we cover
the pros and cons of shaping, lets talk more about what it is.
Shaping is another term for successive approximation. Complex tasks
are broken into achievable chunks, and then taught bit by bit. Shaping
comes in two flavors.
In the first,
commonly called free-shaping, the trainer creates a new behavior from
scratch. For example, to shape a competition-quality sit, the
trainer might start by clicking any sit. Then he would increase his
criteria and click only tucked sits. Then only tucked sits on the haunches.
Then tucked sits on the haunches with even front feet. And so on.
The second type
of shaping builds on an existing behavior. This is how elements such
as distance, duration, and distractions are incrementally added. For
example, once that competition sit is on cue, duration is added gradually
half a second, one second two seconds, four seconds, seven seconds,
ten seconds, and so on.
Although I speak
of two flavors of shaping, they are really applications of the same
method. Shaping is shaping. However, beginners often find using shaping
to add elements to an existing behavior is easier than free-shaping
a brand new behavior. Using successive approximation to add distance
or duration is a great way for trainers to experiment and get comfortable
with the technique and to begin to hone their observation skills. However,
the real power of shaping, and its major benefits, come from free-shaping.
by far, the most flexible training method available. It is limited solely
by the animals ability and the trainers skill. You cant
teach a dog to fly, but if you had the skill, you could teach him to
do a solo freestyle routine cued by the music. For an experienced dog
and trainer team, shaping is as fast as targeting, and its precision
absolutely cant be matched.
The key, however,
is experienced. Shaping isnt fast for new shapers or inexperienced
animals. It takes skill to break behavior into responses so tiny that
your dog can be consistently correct, even when you increase criteria.
It takes skill to see subtle nuances of behavior and to anticipate them
well enough to time your click perfectly. For the dog, it takes a lot
of brain power to work out what a click means (especially if the click
is less-than-perfectly timed). It takes creativity and a willingness
to experiment and make mistakes. If the dog or the trainer doesnt
understand the method, isnt comfortable experimenting, or isnt
a good problem-solver, free-shaping can be very frustrating.
significant challenges, do I think its worth the effort to learn
to shape? Yes, for most anyone interested in truly learning to train,
I do. So often, I see clicker trainers stick to luring and cheat themselves
out of possibilities they truly cant imagine.
Sue Ailsby has a Portuguese Water Dog named Scuba who has been extensively
free-shaped. Watching Sue shape a new behavior is a jaw-droppingly amazing
experience. It takes just one or two clicks at each criterion for Scuba
to catch on, so she learns at seemingly light-speed. Its as close
to pure communication as training can possibly be. Until you see it,
however, you simply cant conceive of it. Not really.
Shaping is unlimited
should I choose?
Each of the
six dog-friendly methods of getting behavior is a legitimate technique.
All have pros and cons. None are suitable for every trainer, every animal,
and every situation. I firmly believe that a good trainer should understand
and be able to use all of the methods.
right method for a particular situation depends on several factors which
were covered in part one of this article. Briefly, they are:
- How many
behaviors will this dog need to learn?
- How quickly
do I need to train the behaviors?
- How precise
are the behaviors?
- How skilled
is the primary trainer?
- How interested
in training is the trainer?
- How experienced
is the dog in each method?
- Will the
dog need to think on his feet, or will he primarily respond
to well-rehearsed cues?
best solution is to use a combination of methods. Use a lure
to get the dog focused on the general type of behavior you want to work
on, and then free-shape. Set up your environment in a way that your
dog cant help but succeeda type of moldingand then
capture what you want. Stretch your imagination and your boundaries!
No matter which
method you choose, remember that training is just a tool we use to deepen
our communication and relationship with our dogs. Dont get so
focused on the result that you forget to enjoy the journey. Clicker
training is the road less traveled, and that makes all the difference!
mca @ clickersolutions.com
copyright 2004 Melissa Alexander
Training Articles Contents || Site
Copyright of all
posts is the property of the original author. Please obtain permission
from the original author before copying, quoting, or forwarding.
List and Site
Owner: Melissa Alexander, mca @ clickersolutions.com