Do Some Dogs Learn More With Shaping Than Others? If So, Why? | Exploits of an Amateur Dog Trainer: Blog Edition

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Do Some Dogs Learn More With Shaping Than Others? If So, Why?

I have pondered this question on occasion.

As those who have followed this blog for a while may know, I'm in love with shaping. Part of this is from its use being the key to unlock the beginning of our relationship and part of it is the sheer success the method has brought to our efforts.

The trade off for this is:


  • Time - shaping takes a lot of time for complex tasks. The trainer also has to be able to break things down, sometimes prior to the session, taking more time.
  • Difficulty - even Wally has gotten somewhat frustrated or confused with some sessions. That is likely my fault in some degree, and some of the blame lies with his past or his personality, but the effect is there.
  • Randomness - there's some measure of uncertainty with what a dog will do when left to his own ideas. This isn't so much a problem for me, but it's something that's often inherent to the process. Tracking progress is mildly difficult since the dog may 'stall' at different points in the process, seemingly for no reason.
  • Minimal Guidance - again, not typically a problem for Wally and I, now, but there are times where I have to remember not to "give hints" or outright redirect him. This may well prove a challenge for a newcomer (either dog or human or both!) to the method. In the beginning, this was the first obstacle Wally overcame.

And for that price, I wonder if there's something extra that's getting learned.  Personally, I believe there are some "extras" that get learned along with the end task. These "extras" often build up even if reaching the goal doesn't happen that session. 

"Extra" benefits of shaping:
  • Creativity - When the dog faces a new challenge, or a twist on an old one, he is more likely to try something since that has brought good things in the past.
  • Confidence - I always say dogs teach themselves when asked about shaping. They are putting the clues together to solve the mystery. I believe this gives them more confidence.
  • Less Pressure - With the lack of guidance can come the lack of worrying about "doing it right" and more about "hmm...what if I try this?". For less confidence dogs, or ones with softer/submissive personalities, I think this is a very good benefit.
  • I don't know how to sum this up, but the dog tells you what he knows. He knows he should have got a reward. He knows something worked last time and wonders why it's not working. I think that's developing some part of his intelligence/logical thinking.
  • Fun - there can be no "point" to shaping and still be fun and helping the dog learn how to learn using shaping. It can be random, free-form, just "whatever", and the dog is still practicing the process.

So I certainly still believe there's a lot of benefits to shaping, but do they all manifest to all dogs? If not, why and can they develop the potential positives of the method while minimizing experiencing the potential downsides? Would it be worth it to "convert" dogs who are learning decently without shaping to learning with shaping training? Is a "mixed" approach to shaping viable? For example, introducing a task using other methods, then refining or fully teaching using shaping?

Is there some personality of dog that tends to do better with shaping? Could it be related to breed traits? Perhaps herders do better with shaping since their job requires on-the-fly thinking and less "overbearing" guidance? Perhaps an independent breed, like a Husky, would do better since it seems like "it was their idea all along?" 

Not to mention trainer personalities. Are there some human personalities better suited to using shaping, or is shaping more a skill than a style and as such is not really impacted by personality?

What does everyone think? Has anyone had experiences trying shaping with multiple dogs? For those who have, could you tell the results were different due to personality or other traits, or were the results basically even? I'm interested in hearing what everyone has to say!