Shaping and Stress

Zani rolling over in a shaping session that we both enjoyed

This is an expansion of a post about a possible cause of stress in shaping that I sent to the Training Levels Yahoo group.

Shaping involves extinction. That is, ceasing to reward something that has been repeatedly rewarded. In the real world, for humans and observably for other animals, that is stressful. The classic examples are when an elevator stops coming when the button is pushed, or when a candy machine just sits there after you put in the correct change and push the button. What usually follows? In the elevator case, repeated pushing of the button. Harder, faster. With the candy machine, all that, and possibly pounding, shaking, yelling. If you think about an animal’s behavior being tied to survival, something suddenly not working anymore is a danger signal. Oh oh, this place or this method that I was relying on no longer provides food. I’m going to have to start all over again and find somewhere or something else.

We are taught that when we suddenly stop rewarding something that a dog has been rewarded for, to be ready for an extinction burst. That is, the behavior rises in frequency and intensity before it fades away. Extinction is not fun for the dog in this circumstance! It is frustrating.

OK, back to shaping. When we shape, we are introducing tiny little extinctions over and over again. That’s how we get successive approximations to the final behavior.  “Fido, THAT behavior is not getting paid for anymore, it is up to you to figure out something that is.”

When I see the really great trainers shape, there is another characteristic besides their ability to detect the tiniest behaviors and differences in behaviors to reinforce. Another skill is that they are constantly watching the animal’s demeanor, as much as its actual movement, and are responding to that. They can keep that extinction process as gentle as possible and keep the animal trusting that the world hasn’t come to an end when they stop clicking for something. And of course these two skills go together. Seeing and responding to the tiniest movements does tend to keep the rate of reinforcement high.

Also they think empathetically. There is a clinically proven human tendency (the “curse of knowledge”) to assume that when we have something visualized or auralized in our heads, that the others around us automatically will see it, hear it, understand it quickly. Great teachers learn that this isn’t the case. And great shapers keep in mind all the time that the animal may not have a CLUE to what they themselves have so clearly in their heads.

Finally, with our pet, service, and performance dogs (i.e. dogs who live with us) it comes down to the trust account. It needs to be very high for some animals to enjoy shaping as much as we ourselves might. They have to trust us that the lack of a click, and a little extinction, is not the end of the world.  I will admit to making mistakes about this. Shaping is so cool; it’s like being handed a shiny new toolbox with all sorts of fun things inside. I’m a pretty empathetic person but I will tell you that I have gotten overexcited about this tool and plowed on through signs of big frustration from my animals. I have recordings that I will probably never show anyone else of shaping sessions I did very early on with both Zani and Clara. They went on for several minutes. We got to our goal (MY goal). But neither dog was having fun after the first minute or so. They were showing stress and frustration. Zani was whining. Clara was spinning, which is her superstitious and stress related behavior. I was pressing on towards the goal insensitively.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the shaping process is usually reinforcing–to the human! Shaping is incredibly cool! We dangle it in front of trainers who are considering “crossing over.” Look what you’ll get to do with your dog! Many of us need to be careful about going overboard.

Just like any other activity, some dogs are going to intrinsically enjoy shaping more than others. But we are trainers, right? If using shaping is important to us, we need to find ways to make sure it is fun for the dog. A little stress may be a good thing in life, but if an animal is chronically averse to training activity we like, it’s time to do something about it. We probably need to gentle down the extinction process. And mind our trust accounts.

A few thoughts on how to do this:

  • Watch the dog and get to know her signals.
  • Pay attention to how long you are waiting if you are withholding the click. That’s when the extinction stress can build up.
  • Start with very short sessions: just a few clicks.
  • Be willing to stop before achieving a pre-ordained goal (This is a hard one! We tend to be so goal oriented.)
  • Have an environmental cue that lets the animal know when you are shaping and when you aren’t.
  • My friend Lynn says, Teach it! Think of it from the learner’s point of view.
  • Lynn also says do little sessions of “shaping nonsense.” Make sure both you and the dog approach it as a game.
  • Don’t do like I did with Zani and start shaping with a brand new rescue dog just because you can. I wish I had built up our trust a little better before doing that.

Here are my three submissions to ShapeFest 2012 a few months ago. I’m pleased with my dogs’ demeanor in all of these. Clara is still the most serious,  but showed only a few little stress signs. Her main stress behavior is a counterclockwise spin. She does a couple of spins starting at 2:20 but it’s hard to tell how much is stress and how much is just a behavior she is trying. Since her pace is not frenetic, my guess it that they were mostly offered behaviors.

Shaping Zani to roll over

Shaping Summer to mount a platform, using playing in the hose as the reinforement

Shaping Clara to do a distant paw touch

I bet some of you out there have some other suggestions about making sure shaping is fun. Care to share?

Discussions coming up:

  • Is It Really Just a Tap? (shock collar content)
  • “Errorless learning”
  • Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Thanks for reading!

12 thoughts on “Shaping and Stress

  1. Love shaping! One thing I noticed people doing that increases stress to the dog is going “cold turkey” when raising criteria. I’ve found it more effective to gradually raise criteria by clicking a combination of old criteria, current criteria, and new criteria, until the dog is very proficient at the new criteria. Then the new becomes the current, and so on. I explained it better in a post: [dead link removed]

    At least, that was my interpretation of the explanation in “Don’t Shoot the Dog.” You never want to suddenly stop clicking altogether for something that was being rewarded a minute ago – that’s what causes a lot of frustration on the dog’s part (and the trainer’s!)

    1. Sure, Marjorie. With clicker trained dogs it’s helpful to let them know ahead of time whether offering behaviors is desired (shaping) or some other kind of training is going on. Say, doing something repeatedly to learn a cue, working duration, or working on stimulus control. Shaping and stimulus control are opposites in a way. In shaping we want the dog to keep trying stuff. When working on stim control, we only reinforce cued responses of the exact cued behavior. So whatever we can do to let the dog know which we are doing I think is helpful. My visual cue for shaping is that I generally sit in a chair, relaxed, with treats in one hand (I usually use a verbal or a mouth click, or I would have clicker in the other), and look expectant. Sometimes I stand, as when I’m outside, but I adopt the same stance. Like I’m saying, “Whaddaya got for me?” I think some people go so far as to wear a special hat or tie out a bandana or something. (Or that may be for when they are playing 101 Things with a Box, yet another situation where the rules change. That’s too advanced for me and my dogs.) I got into trouble once for quite a long period where I was working duration backing up with both Zani and Summer. We did lots and lots of reps with my standing looking at them, reinforcing longer and longer backups. I wasn’t using the verbal cue yet. Turns out my cue for shaping got mixed up with the environmental cue for backing up, and for a long time I couldn’t get them to do anything but back up when I was trying to shape! I think I have a video of the rehabilitation work I did to get us over that. If it’s decent I’ll post it one of these days. It was another funny problem to have.

  2. So it’s kinda like frequency training where you sit and wait for the behaviour you want to appear and then reward when it does, only that you are looking for a sequence of behaviours???

    1. Hi Marjorie, I’m not sure about your meaning with frequency training, but I’ll take a stab at your question. If you are asking about shaping, it does start with capturing a behavior the dog does and reinforcing. They will likely repeat it or something like it. Then you use the natural variety that comes with behavior to choose the responses that are closer and closer to what you want. The video of Clara doing the paw touch that is linked to in the blog post is the clearest example of that. First I clicked her for looking or heading in the general direction of the tape on the step, then for being in the general area, then noticing it and nose touching it, and then finally touching it with her paw. The first few paw touches came by accident as she walked around the area, but it only took a few for her to realize that’s what I was going for. Let me know if that answers your question. I’m glad to discuss this some more.

  3. Thanks Eileen, I get it now. Frequency training is looking for and rewarding one specific behaviour done naturally like a sit and shaping is rewarding a sequence of behaviours that lead to a desired behaviour, then phasing out the steps leading to the desired behaviour and only rewarding the actual behaviour. Our clicker trainer had us do “frequency training” to reinforce a new learned behaviour whenever they offered it. She would have us sit and ignore the dog and when they came around and offered the behaviour we would reward click & treat. Once they really got it that that behaviour was what we wanted then we would attach a command with it. If you are going to work on a particular type of training (shaping) you set up a regular structured environment to cue the dog as to how you want to work. So, am I confused or on target?

  4. Eileen thank you for this great post! I have often cringed watching people shape their horses and you have explained for me beautifully where the process is probably going wrong.

    1. Lyndsey I’m so glad you liked it! I had to go back and read it again; I had forgotten a lot. I recently had some really nice shaping sessions with my dogs, and realized we have come a long way without my realizing it! I am probably going to publish one or two.

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