Shaping pet behavior

Last week this column talked about how to capture a behavior or take a snap shot of what an animal does so we could see that behavior performed again. Sometimes animals don’t perform a behavior that we would like to see in its entirety. An example would be dog agility. Dogs are not going to go through the weave pole, over the hurdles and on the A frame in the correct order by themselves. We must teach them using approximations until they can perform the full behavior. This training technique is called shaping. Much like riding a bicycle or memorizing a speech, shaping a behavior for animals starts with baby steps. For all of these behaviors, starting at the end is best.

For bike riding, learning how to stop the bike at the beginning is ideal. You wouldn’t want to finally be riding along and then realize you don’t know how to stop other than jumping off and rolling to a stop. Research suggests learning the last segment of your presentation or speech first is best. Once you can easily recite the last part, learn the second segment plus the last segment. Keep back tracking one topic or paragraph at a time and by the time you get to the end, you will have the last paragraphs rehearsed the most. When it is time to give your presentation, butterflies might kick in. You will start presenting your most recently learned paragraph and end with the paragraphs that you are most comfortable with, giving an overall solid behavior. And that is what we want from our pets: reliable behaviors.

Let’s say the behavior you want to shape is for your pet to come and sit next to you. First you should dissect all the steps that behavior would entail. There is at least two big parts: the coming over part and the sitting next to you part.

I would start with the sitting next to you part of the behavior first as it is the end of the total behavior you want to see. The act of sitting can also be shaped. This can be broken down to what side you want the sit and how fast the sit is. If you only want your pet to sit on your left side and to sit on your left side within 3 seconds, it can be easily shaped. If your pet already knows how to sit, only reward your pet when they are on the left side of you. They could be in front of you or behind you, but as long as they are in the middle of you or a little to the left, reward them.

2 part ticket -- D -- size display

What are you going to shape?

When they sit close to where you want them to be, reward them with really great treats. If you have a carnivore (cat or dog for example) pieces of tuna or chicken or 2-3 store bought treats would be good. Anything that is vet approved and their favorite will work. If they sit and it is not close to where you want them, still reward them for sitting but only with second string treats, like 1 store bought treat or normal dry kibble. Once they are sitting in the desired area consistently, stop rewarding altogether areas that don’t fit those criteria. You are slowly phasing out the areas you are not interested in.

You can also shape the act of coming over. When the animal approaches you, you can shape the direction or speed in which they approach you. If you want them to run over, reward the quicker scuttles better (higher quality treats) than the slower ones. Eventually you could phase out the slower approaches by not feeding their favorites. I would still reinforce them with some type of food whenever they come over, because if a situation arises where you need them by your side you will want the behavior of coming over to be reliable.

In the beginning of this behavior you might have two cues or request. Your first cue might be “come” and your second cue “sit.” If you want the whole behavior of running over to you and sitting on your left side to be the cue “heel,” you can slowly change your wording. Often animal trainers will use two types of cues, such as verbal and visual. If you use to say come at the same time as you tapped your leg, you can phase out saying “come” and just tap your leg. After a few repetitions of you cueing your pet to come and immediately sit afterwards, your pet will start associating those two behaviors as one and soon you will not need to give a treat between the two behaviors.

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