4 min read

We are all living to some degree on the experiences of those who went before us. This is particularly relevant in dog training as we become very aware of what was culturally accepted 40-50 years ago would now not even be considered. Many fields of learning have expanded and moved forwards as we gain more knowledge. This affects the application of what we do and the personal ethics that support our choices.

Of course, there are people living by the “if it ain’t broken …” philosophy that are afraid of the hard work to make the changes. Equally, there are many protocols beneficial to our relationships that were common in dog training and have now been brushed aside in the revolution .

As the clicker-generation of positive reinforcement forges ahead the knowledge of how these protocols emerges becomes forgotten. Shaping dawned as the new sexy protocol to train dogs. This was understood to be a process whereby the dog was allowed to offer behaviours and when these behaviours matched the goals of the trainer, was clicked and rewarded.

Let’s step back a moment. All learning is shaping. All teaching is shaping within a curriculum.

Contingencies will include the environment, the space the dog feels is around them or not, any threats, what you are doing, what they have learned, their genetic traits, their early learning and of course …. you. All these elements can change, and because they change, the behaviour changes.

Changing the contingencies

Currently my youngest is just turning one year old and lives for the highlights of her day. This ranges from deep sofa cuddling of the “under my chin variety” to racing to the gate in anticipation of running the fields, really, really fast glorious, totally pleasurable run. As we begin the pattern of heading towards the gate she would love to use her collie skills to make this Ol’Ewe (me) move a little faster. In my best day I could not get there as fast as she would like, so I get “hurried”. “Harried” is more accurate. This form of learning has very little future, either for me or any stock handling, so I need to “shape” her behaviour towards something acceptable. It is not an instant result, we are making good progress and it is changing because of the changing contingencies:

~ When she has stood still at the gate, I move towards the gate.

~ When she is running at me (coming in “hot”), I stand still.

~ The other dogs are standing still at the gate

~ Consequences – the gate opens.

But I am most definitely guiding those changes towards something mutually acceptable and beneficial to her future. Our question when teaching, using shaping, is the degree of guidance that assists the learning towards the goal behaviour.

The shaping culture arose at a time when dog training was drowning in the push and pull techniques of leash pops, good yanks, slaps on the rump and the rest. Luring was becoming the new fashion, but still being met with resistance.

Shaping then filled the gap for the hands free, non-coercive aims. It actually gave rise to a new term “free-shaping”. Exotic animal training was not able to access the coercive techniques or luring. Many of these animals were in limited contact, either they were in water, or could present safety issues for the trainers, or equally at the hands of the trainers. These trainers become masters at shaping without guidance. Necessity opening the way to some impressive shaping techniques.

Using these techniques to shape behaviours in dogs became the new sexy method, launched on the back of the first wave of the internet. Some truly impressive training has been achieved with this protocol. But, is it a protocol fashioned through trainers without direct access to their learners or researchers who were not actually animal trainers and did not have any knowledge how to train  animals.

Free-shaping, or shaping with no guidance can be an extremely stressful process. All your efforts at trying to find what gets treats can be met with no response, no information and very soon you will begin to flounder. We see dogs “click-fishing”, dancing around on the spot trying find what it is that gets a click. It often looks a very agitated, frenetic process.

The stress of this will be felt viscerally, that sinking feeling in the stomach. For the sensitive learners, having absolutely no idea what to do, it is a killer. The insensitive learners will naturally explore their environment and probably become aroused at just being allowed to explore. These learners often come in a package called 16 week old puppies who will grow out of that nature-driven phase fairly soon and become a little cautious about novel objects.

If I left Zip at the gate waiting for her to find a solution, it would have ended in a cloud of escalating frustration. She needs guidance.

Can you imagine turning up to class, any class, and being given absolutely no guidance as to what to do?

Go on, try 101 things with that chair …..  I’m waiting  …..  something “new” ?”

Guidance can be the lightest change in contingencies, an extra antecedent. I can place a palette of different paints and brushes next to the chair. It doesn’t mean you need to paint the chair, you could sit on the chair and paint your own shoes, but just the presence of the tools would give  you guidance.

Guidance for our dogs can be an invitation from placement of a treat, a suggestion from brush of your hand, a conversation with a cardboard box that arouses curiosity.

Guidance canalises the imagination.

Please do not dismiss guidance that still allows for choices as something to avoid. Luring, prompting, modelling, environmental context are all contingency re-arrangements that can be used to present possibilities.

Guidance does not take away opportunities, it does not become dependency.

Which opportunity to take is still the learner’s domain.

Looking for Guidance .... ?

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