Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Shaping Up - The First Session

Hokey had her very first shaping session today. I particularly love to incorporate the use of shaping into my overall training for two reasons:

1. The dog learns to think through situations and problem-solve. It is allowed to make choices and subsequently learn, through trial-and-error, which ones result in a reward and which don't. I love watching the wheels turn inside my dogs' heads as they try to figure out and work through what it is I want them to do. And it is especially rewarding when the light bulb goes off and the dog starts consistently repeating the desired behavior - you can see them bursting with pride and pure joy.

2. It's FUN! The dogs and I have a blast together when we do shaping exercises. It's a big game where we both win. My dogs can barely contain their excitement and I get so much enjoyment out of watching them experiment and experience a-ha moments. The process helps to cement our bond and makes us better working partners.

That said, I am not a free-shaping purist. I may have an abundance of patience, but still, not quite enough to use shaping as a method to train every little behavior.  I use positive reinforcement lure training in combination with shaping - especially for basic commands such as sit and down.

What I really like to use shaping for best is to help my dogs develop body awareness, to help them learn to interact with objects (i.e. more independence/less handler focus), and to teach new tricks.

Although I've incorporated some shaping into Hokey's basic training, today was our very first session of true shaping for the sole purpose of shaping's sake. Because of her deafness, she tends to be a little more handler-dependent and handler-focused than the average dog. Looking ahead to potentially training her for agility, I want to begin to shift her focus off of me a bit so she can 1) start to build value for interacting with objects/obstacles and 2) develop some independence. Additionally, I want to start building her body awareness.

Normally, when beginning shaping sessions with a dog, I would start by using a box as the object with which they are to interact, as in 101 Things to Do with a Box. However, since I recently started nosework training with Hokey, which involves the use of cardboard boxes, I decided I should try something else as not to confuse her. Since she is small, I felt a plastic frisbee would do the trick. 

Unfortunately, I did not capture the very first steps of her shaping session on video. These involved her getting rewarded for any interaction with the frisbee: nose touch, paw touch, etc. Any kind of acknowledgment. She is a smart cookie and flew through those steps rather quickly, so I decided she was ready to take the plunge and actually learn a new behavior. I wanted to keep it VERY simple, so the behavior I chose was for her to stand with both front feet on the frisbee. Here is a video of our first attempts:

She caught on right away! I let Hokey think things through and never lured. That is the point of the game. Sometimes if one of my dogs gets really stuck while I'm waiting them out, I might move around the room to help "unstick" them, but never in a way that would result in them being lured into the desired position.

After a short break, we were back at it. At first, I was preferably delivering my rewards while she was still in the desired position. However, once she "got" the game, she showed some reluctance to put much distance between herself and the frisbee between repetitions, so I decided it was time to start throwing the treat away from the frisbee to move her off.

With Ollie and Poppy, I either use a clicker or my substitute clicker word, "Yes!". Obviously, with Hokey's deafness, neither of those is an option. Instead I use a hand flash. I may also give her an "OK" sign AFTER the hand flash and treat reward, to let her know how pleased I am. Of course, I want to try to deliver my hand flash, followed by the reward, the split second she performs the behavior (i.e. as soon as both front feet are on the frisbee). This is where there might be a slight disadvantage with her deafness in that,  if she doesn't happen to be looking at me, I am unable to get the timing correct and, therefore, this may result in a delay between the behavior and the hand flash, as shown in the following clip (slowed down) where she is sniffing the carpet as she performs the behavior before she looks up at me.

But, overall, she caught on to the game and I consider it a successful first session.

BTW - I don't know what that silly little move of her putting her head upside-down between her front legs is all about, but I love all my dogs' funny little quirks.

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