Dog Talk: Training dogs to perform complicated behaviors
Teaching dogs to ‘sit’, ‘down’ or ‘stay’ is straightforward if we understand the basics of how dogs learn. But teaching dogs complicated behaviors that do not come naturally to them, or as a behavior analyst would say ‘they are not in the learner’s current repertoire’, is not a simple procedure. When a behavior cannot be captured, or is too complicated to lure or does not occur naturally which tool do professional dog trainers’ use?
Let us consider Sea World. I am sure many of you have watched dolphins or whales perform many creative and amazing tricks. How do the marine trainers get these behaviors and put them under stimulus control? They certainly do not use a choke chain or physically manipulate the marine mammals to jump through hoops. Dog Trainers use the same techniques to train complicated behaviors. They involve the animal in the learning process by encouraging them to voluntarily exhibit small behaviors that the trainer reinforces.
Reinforcing small approximations of a desired behavior in succession to achieve a more complicated behavior is called shaping. Examples in the dog obedience world are ‘drop on recall’, ‘retrieve over a jump’, distance handling such as a ‘sit’ or ‘down’ from a distance of 30 feet. A great ‘at home’ example would be to shape your dog’s behavior to go to the refrigerator and retrieve a can of soda for you. And yes, my husband put a stop to this training session pretty quickly.
Effective behavior shaping should begin with a written plan of the behavior you desire to shape and a detailed understanding of each behavior approximation to be reinforced. Your goal should always be to remain flexible throughout the shaping session. When shaping a behavior you start by reinforcing small steps and giving immediate reinforcement for those small steps. The reinforcers are small and easily delivered so the shaping is not delayed and the dog does not get satiated too quickly. Once the dog can easily complete the first approximation of the behavior then the trainer moves on to the next approximation. We “up the ante” by expecting more from the dog to earn the reinforcement as the shaping progresses. If you put the first approximation on extinction by holding back reinforcement you will see the dog experiment with behavioral variability and they will try lots of things to keep the reinforcement coming. When you observe this you can choose the next approximation to reinforce.
Shaping is most effective when the best available approximation is reinforced. Even with a well laid out shaping plan it may be necessary for the trainer to back up or reinforce an approximation that was not on the initial plan. Lowering the reinforcement standard can sometimes accelerate learning. When the “going gets tough” use a cue and/or make smaller approximations available for reinforcement so the dog does not lose interest or shut down. Any simple mistakes you make in shaping will affect the rate of learning. If you hesitate before delivering the reinforcement, expect too much, too quickly, or inadequately reinforce the dog’s performance learning may not progress. Like all training strategies contingency and contiguity are important, as is the magnitude of the reinforcement available.
When shaping, learning is affected more by the trainer’s ability to judge and reinforce approximations than the subject’s ability to learn so if you encounter difficulties in shaping a behavior take a step back and look at what you, the trainer are doing. If you can acquire the skill of shaping then you can train a dog to do any behavior that they are physically capable of doing. Joining a well run dog training class will help you with your training mechanics, your ability to mark and reinforce the correct behavior and as such your dog’s learning will be more enjoyable and more efficient.
Niki Tudge is the owner and founder of The DogSmith, America’s Dog Training, Dog Walking and Pet Care Franchise. Niki achieved her Canine Behaviorist Diploma in England and Dog Obedience Training Diploma in the US. Niki is a member of the National Association of Dog Obedience Trainers and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.