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Trainer Terms Explained: Shaping

Ah, the wonderful world of dog training terminology! As a professional trainer, let me tell you, it’s like learning a whole new language. And one of the words in our vocab? Shaping. Now, I know what you’re thinking – “Isn’t that what happens when I put shapewear on?” Well, you’re not far off! But in the dog training realm, shaping takes on a whole new meaning, and it’s a superpower that every pup pawrent should have in their arsenal.

But before we dive into the nitty-gritty of shaping, let’s first address the elephant in the room: positive reinforcement training. At Little Angels Dog Training, we’re all about that good vibes, treats-and-praise life. No scary gadgets, no harsh corrections – just a whole lot of reinforcement to our Fido’s for making the right choices. And shaping? Well, it’s basically the OG of positive reinforcement techniques.

So, what exactly is shaping, you ask? Imagine you’re a sculptor, but instead of chiselling away at a hunk of marble, you’re moulding your dog’s behaviour, one tiny step at a time. It’s like a game of hot and cold, where you reward your pup for getting closer and closer to the desired action, until BAM! They’ve nailed it, and they get the jackpot of rewards.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – “But my dog already knows how to sit and shake! What else is there to shape?” Oh my, the possibilities are endless! From teaching your pooch to put their toys away, getting a water bottle from the fridge (Stan Lee alert – this was a bad idea to give him access to the fridge!), to mastering the art of “getting dressed” for an Assistance Dog, shaping is the ultimate tool for building new behaviours from the ground up.

But enough with the abstract examples, let’s get specific. Let’s say you want to get your furry buddy comfortable wearing a harness. You know, one of those snazzy numbers that make them look like they’re about to embark on a daring mountain rescue mission (or, you know, just go for a casual stroll around the block).

Now, if you’re like me, the thought of wrangling your doggo into a harness might fill you with visions of a full-body workout, complete with acrobatic manoeuvres and a healthy dose of sweat equity, especially if you have giant breeds like me. With the power of shaping, you can turn that dreaded battle into a fun, rewarding experience for both you and your pooch.

Here’s how it works: First, you’ll want to get your pup excited about the mere presence of the harness. Bring it out, let them sniff it, and reward them every time they even glance at it. Once they’re comfortable with the harness being in their vicinity, you can start shaping the behaviour of actually putting it on.

Maybe you’ll reward them for touching their nose to the harness, or for letting you drape it over their back for a split second. Gradually, you’ll increase the duration and complexity of the behaviour you’re rewarding, until eventually, your Fido is happily getting dressed in their harness and letting you buckle them up without so much as a sideways glance.

The key to successful shaping is patience and repetition. You’ll want to break the behaviour down into tiny, manageable steps, and reward each one enthusiastically (remember in previous blogs I’ve spoken about approximations of the behaviour). And don’t be discouraged if progress seems slow at first – remember, you’re literally building a brand-new behaviour from scratch, one reinforcement at a time.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – “But what if my dog just doesn’t seem to get it?” Well, that’s where the true art of shaping comes in. As trainers and dog guardians, it’s our job to be creative, to read our dogs’ body language, and to adjust our approach accordingly. Maybe your pup needs a higher-value reward to stay motivated, or perhaps the harness itself is a little too intimidating, and you need to start with something less overwhelming, like a soft leash or collar

The beauty of shaping is that it’s infinitely adaptable, tailored to each individual dog’s needs, quirks, and learning styles. And trust me, when you finally reach that “aha!” moment where your pooch is rocking their harness like a total pro, the sense of accomplishment (and the adorable photo ops) will make all the reward-fuelled baby steps worth it.

So, that’s your crash course in the wonderful world of shaping! Whether you’re teaching your pup to nail that perfect “shake” or mastering the art of polite leash walking, this positive reinforcement powerhouse is sure to be your new best friend. Just remember to stay patient, stay positive, and most importantly, have fun with it! After all, that’s what dog training is all about – creating a bond with your Furchild that’s built on trust, communication, and maybe just a few too many snackies.

Happy Shaping!

Game On! Let’s Play!


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