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Shaping Without a Clicker

Shaping Without a Clicker

no markerMost trainers agree that if there is one thing that the tool called a clicker is useful for in particular, it is for shaping behavior. Shaping consists of marking and reinforcing successive approximations towards a goal behavior. When shaping, the trainer can find herself needing to mark very small or quick movements indeed, sometimes just a weight shift or a breath. When that is the case, the behavior is usually long over by the time one can get food or a toy to the animal.

A clicker or other marker can form a “bridge” between the behavior and the reinforcer, letting the animal know more precisely what behavior we are attempting to reinforce.

The other day I was in a discussion, a common one online, about whether a clicker or a marker word is better for training in general. (Guess what–I have a blog post coming out about that soon!) Someone said that in any case, a clicker was necessary when shaping. I said that it wasn’t. The discussion went a different direction after that, so I decided to demonstrate here what I mean.1)This idea is not original to me. I originally read it years ago on the Yahoo group ClickerSolutions, but I don’t remember the author. I’m sorry that I can’t make a proper attribution.

Everybody who thinks they are about to see three shaping clips with the trainer using some other kind of marker—think again. In these three movies I shape three different dogs to do three different behaviors with no marker at all. No deliberate one anyway.

In two out of the three clips, the dog is working at a slight distance from me, so in that case my motion to throw the treat becomes a marker when they see it. In fact, at one point (in a video not shown here) I did the equivalent of clicking and not treating: I wound up to throw but held back. I saw Summer notice that, bless her heart, but she soldiered right on when she saw that I wasn’t going to throw.

Doubtless the dogs picked up on other behaviors of mine that mean, “Food coming!” But that happens when we use a deliberate marker as well.

Benefits

Why even try such an odd thing?

It’s a learning opportunity, and quite an interesting one. When you take away the marker, what you have left to work with is placement and speed of treat delivery—things that skilled trainers seek to optimize anyway. I would encourage any trainer to try it as an exercise. One of the challenges when working at a distance and throwing treats is whether you can successfully anticipate the animal’s movement and start your throw so that the treat arrives right as she does the behavior. It’s a gamble. Either you wait and the treat arrives late, or don’t wait and risk a “false positive” throw when they didn’t do what you wanted after all. (For instance in Clara’s video, at 2:36 and 2:54, I accidentally reward a weight shift when her paw ends up not moving, well after I should have finished rewarding weight shifts.)

I noticed that I started watching the dogs’ bodies with the intent of predicting when they would make a certain movement. This is a valuable habit for marker training–something I should be doing in any case. But taking away the marker forced me to improve. I learned some things that I think I will retain about how my dogs balance their bodies and how to predict their movements.

And of course, there’s always the possibility that you’ll run up against a dog who is scared of the clicker. I trained such a dog, and because I didn’t back off fast enough, her fear quickly spread to other markers.

If you want to watch only one movie, watch Clara’s. It was the biggest challenge and the most interesting.

Zani’s Task: Nose Target a Piece of Tape on the Wall

This is a known behavior for Zani, and in a known place, but she still had to figure out where to go within our working area, and then to notice and respond to the tape. I deliberately handicapped myself (in addition to not using a marker) by sitting at a distance from the tape.

Link to Zani’s video for email subscribers.

Summer’s Task: Paws Up on a Chair

Again, this is a known behavior. But we have never practiced it without me standing right there, so the distance was new. Also the towel I put on the chair changed the look of the situation. In an earlier session with Zani, not shown here, I had really screwed up my setting factors. I tried to shape Zani into paws up position on the chair, and actually did succeed, but it took a while because of the following drawbacks:

  • The treats (kibble) that I tossed onto the chair bounced off Every. Single. Time.
  • Many of the treats that I tossed on the floor rolled under the desk.

So when I tried it with Summer I placed a towel to pad the chair seat a bit and also to block the most direct path under the desk. I also switched to cheese, which is less prone to ricochet. (Lucky Summer!)

I stayed seated until she got the paws up part, but I did jump up at the end to treat Summer in position when she made it up there.

Summer is my crossover dog, but also the most inventive of my three. Be sure to catch her signature shaping move, a kind of sashay while tossing her head. The best one is at 0:59.

Link to Summer’s video for email subscribers.

Clara’s Task: Left Paw Lift

Clara shapingI am really proud of this one. With the other two behaviors shown, a critic could say that just by loading treats over into the area where the target behavior was, I was almost luring the dog  (even though we often do that when shaping with a marker as well). So for Clara, I deliberately picked a behavior I had never trained before that didn’t involve going to a location. This was completely new for Clara, as was the actual behavior, the paw lift (on a side designated ahead of time by me). Also, I’ve never shaped this kind of body movement with her before.

The thing I really like about both shaping and capturing is when the target behavior becomes more frequent and more exaggerated, seemingly even before the dog “knows” what she is doing. You can see Clara’s left paw movement get more frequent and more pronounced starting at about 2:00 in the video. (Yes, and you can see me miss reinforcing some really good ones.) It’s pretty amazing how fast she got it considering that there was a varying time lag between her foot movement and the treat.

Link to Clara’s video for email subscribers.

Clara Makes Choices

You’ll see in Clara’s video that she is slow to get started and also leaves the session twice for a few seconds. There were a couple of reasons for this. When I do nose work in the house with my dogs, I get them to stay out of sight and then release them into the target area. I don’t have a verbal cue for it yet (my bad). So when I released Clara to enter the area, it’s pretty clear she thought that’s what we were doing. It was exacerbated by the fact that I had been using homemade chicken brownies and mozzarella cheese earlier, but I was down to using small kibble at this point. So I don’t blame her for taking a few sniffs around to make sure she wasn’t supposed to be hunting something down.

Do I mind that my dog wandered off in the middle of a session? At first I did—dammit, I was recording! But then I reminded myself that she has that choice. Clara had already had a few sessions and eaten quite a few different types of treats, so the value of the current reinforcement was low, especially considering the difficulty of the task. I have tons of value built with working with me already and she’s normally a very focused worker, so her leaving was not worrisome, as it might have been with a different dog. (Also, the sniffing was clearly with a purpose; Clara was not leaving on account of any stress.)

Often when people talk about giving their dogs choices it centers on the choice to leave something that might be aversive, such as getting their nails trimmed, or seeing one of their triggers. That’s a given for most positive reinforcement based trainers, and my dogs have that choice as much as I can possibly provide it. (Exceptions being things like vet visits, but I strive to make those as non-aversive as possible.)

But in this case, Clara was choosing between two positively reinforcing activities: a shaping session and sniffing around and possibly finding a high value treat. It makes me happy that she and I have such a great relationship that I can give her this choice.

And hey, she came back and NAILED it!

So here’s a challenge if you are interested. If your dog is already shaping-savvy, try shaping without a marker. (If you typically use a clicker or other marker for everything, you might want to experiment with leaving it out while doing something a little easier than shaping at first.) And let us know how it goes. You can even tape your mouth shut. I did for our first sessions!

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Notes   [ + ]

1. This idea is not original to me. I originally read it years ago on the Yahoo group ClickerSolutions, but I don’t remember the author. I’m sorry that I can’t make a proper attribution.
Shaping and Stress

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!

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