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Shaping for good behaviour – Karen Phillips

Lots of people come to agility classes in a last ditch attempt to provide their dogs with an outlet for boundless enthusiasm they are struggling to contain at home.  Agility is without a doubt a fantastic way to give our dogs extra mental stimulation but often classes are only once a week, so what else can we do with our dogs in between to keep them mentally stimulated and out of mischief? 

One of my favourite training methods with all my dogs is called “shaping”.  My border collies and my papillon respond with huge amounts of enthusiasm during all of our shaping sessions as they are able to earn masses of reinforcement from me every time.  Shaping is when you teach your dog a complete behaviour by breaking it down into several smaller pieces that are easy for the dog to understand and learn.  In order for the dog to know that they have done something you wanted you need to “mark” the behaviour.

For most positive reinforcement trainers the marker they use will be a clicker (see my February 2013 newsletter post for information on clicker training).  If you don’t have a clicker you can use your voice and mark the behaviour with the word “yes” when your dog gets it right.  As long as the marker is immediately followed with a food reward it should achieve the same outcome in that your dog understands he has gotten it right.

When you decide to shape a behaviour with your dog it is very important that you are clear in your mind about what the end behaviour is that you want.  You then need to put some thought into how you can break the behaviour down in order to achieve the end behaviour.

For example, if I wanted to teach my dog to “sit pretty” (sitting with both front paws up in the air) I need to consider the different things that make up that behaviour.  Firstly my dog needs to be sitting.  Having their bottom the ground is the most important part of the behaviour.  From the sit I want my dog to raise both paws up into the air to the sit pretty position.  In my first training session I would reward my dog for sitting in front of me.  Once my dog is offering that behaviour I would wait for any shift of their front legs.  It may only be a slight shift in body weight to begin with.  The important thing is to reward that shift in weight immediately so the dog gets the idea that they are being rewarded for that movement.

Once you are seeing a reliable sit with a slight front leg movement, hold off rewarding until your dog tries something a little more.  If you have provided enough reinforcement to this stage it is natural for them to try something else to see if that earns them additional rewards.  Hopefully you are now starting to get at least one slight paw lift.  When that happens continue rewarding until you can see your dog has the idea and again hold off from the rewards with the aim to get that other front leg off the ground as well.  A sit pretty does require a bit of core muscle strength from your dog so it may take them a little bit of work to build up enough strength to hold the position.

As with all dog training the key to success is amount of rewards you provide and the timing of those rewards.

It is important to remember that shaping sessions can easily break down when the dog becomes discouraged due to a lack of reinforcement from you.  Reward small progresses so the dog’s enthusiasm and intensity is maintained.  Many dogs get confused and give up because their owners are trying to get the entire behaviour straight away.  So be very conscious of breaking those behaviours down into easily achievable parts for your dog and you are sure to have success and a dog who is working hard to earn rewards from you.


Karen Phillips is the owner and trainer of Riot, the beautiful border collie that is the Better Pets and Gardens mascot.  Karen has had immense experience and success with her border collies as well as little Cassie, the very fast papillon, and is currently involved as a trainer with the Agility Club of WA.  Karen is also a regular expert on our Facebook page every Monday night.

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