Good Shaping is Stress*-Free

Today during new student orientations, When Hounds Fly welcomed a new student with a 16 month old English Bulldog. Their owner had completed three levels of classes at another dog training school (a typical Toronto dog training school – mostly positive, old-fashioned lure-reward type school). She had watched a lot of our videos and was excited to come to our school and do our Foundations Skills program, even though her dog probably knows many of the behaviors taught. I was really happy to hear that, as it was clear she knew that she was coming to learn how to be a clicker trainer!

“We’re really anal here about good training. You came to the right place.” I said.

“Great, because I don’t want my dog to be confused, wondering what he’s supposed to do, yawning and stressing out anymore.” she replied.

What a brilliant observation. Being a sloppy trainer is not just detrimental to you, in terms of lack of progress. It is highly unfair to the dog. They feel stress and anxiety with poorly timed clicks, low rates of reinforcement, or confusing criteria. Being a great clicker trainer means the dog should seldom, if ever, feel stressed during training.

When you train your dog, what kinds of signs of stress do you observe? For Petey, the first sign is stress lines around his eyes and mouth. If it continues to worsen, he whines quietly while moving frantically. At its worst, he stops moving and lays down, panting and whining. Other dogs bark at their handler in frustration. Some lay down and look depressed. I knew of one that would start growling. None of these feelings are helpful as we are trying to condition good feelings about training.

In my previous post I mentioned I had just enrolled in an online distance course. The first exercise I’ve been working on is to train Petey to put four paws inside a food bowl. The instructor does not give very explicit training plans – figuring it out yourself is part of the learning process. In the below video, I have taken snapshots of the four sessions I did over three days:

In the series of four training sessions on video, I started with a US postal service box, then a black ikea box, then a cardboard box that housed my kettle, and finally the water bowl dish. In each session, Petey never showed signs of anxiety or stress. While he sometimes struggled to get his paws in the container, he knew what he was doing.

Good training means the dog is never stressed or confused. A good training plan is needed first. This four paws in a food dish exercise is a great exercise in thinking about how to shape properly by splitting criteria. It’s so easy! Start with a giant box and work your way down to progressively smaller boxes until you get to the final size you wish. Move down a size/raise criteria whenever the dog hits a certain success rate (80% typically). Box dimensions (length/width/height) are easily quantifiable, so criteria is black and white. Instead of starting with a tiny box, or a food bowl, and getting frustrated, I just spent a lot of time finding perfect size boxes. Then the training went quick!

Unfortunately, not all behaviors have criteria so easy to split and identify as the dimensions of a box. That’s the skill of a great clicker trainer – determining how to split criteria to the smallest increment, devising ingenious ways to setup the training environment so criteria is easy to identify, and ensuring the rate of reinforcement is high enough that the exercises are easy for the dog.

In my earlier videos and training sessions a year or more ago, Petey often got confused and would lay down and get stressed out. I kept on training and pushed through. From now on, if any dog I train shuts down that way, it’s time to stop training and go back to the drawing board.

Always be asking yourself – how can I make this easier for the dog?

Nesting Dolls
Answer: Split Criteria Like Nesting Dolls

*Update: A mere hour after I posted this on our Facebook Page, Casey Lomonaco posted a really great comment: “I partially agree. Learning is stressful, but there is a big difference between eustress and distress.” Thank you – yes – learning is stressful, and I think during a great training session, especially when you are raising criteria, our dogs are buzzing and feeling eustress. And that is a good thing. Thank you Casey!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *