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Adventures in shaping

One of the ideas in Leslie McDevitt’s book, “Control Unleashed,”  is to allow dogs to look at things they might react to. It’s something I wanted to try shaping in a low-stimuli setting, so as recommended I placed an X of duct tape on the wall. I closed the door, got out some treats, manned my clicker and waited to see what would happen.

Lilly threw all kinds of behaviors at me, including poking the X with her nose, pawing it with her feet and laying down below it. At first I clicked any interaction with the X, but eventually she got frustrated and ripped it off the wall.

Clearly, I wasn’t doing a good job shaping in that scenario. So, after a few attempts over several days, I stopped trying that method. (Plus, the wall was taking a beating.)

Then, last Thursday night, just before I was set to leave for a party, I realized that Lilly was intently looking out one of my office windows. So, I clicked it. She looked at me took the treat and did it again. So, I clicked it. We were on to something.

Over the next few minutes, I watched her try to figure out exactly what head position I was rewarding. Since the window is near my trash can, she thought at one point that I wanted her to stick her head in the can. Nope. She tried looking up, looking down. Nope.

Essentially, I was clicking any lateral head move where she shifted her gaze from me to something else … in this case, out the window. I even tried putting her X on the window, but she just ripped it off and went back to wiggling her head.

Like an ostrich with a neck spasm, she experimented, lolling her head here, tipping in there, hoping to find the right thing. That’s when I knew she sort of understood the game.

Once she began looking away consistently, I realized that she was making the movements smaller and smaller. By the time we stopped, she was barely moving her head, but darting her eyes off to the side.

We’ve tried it again with similar results, but I’m still not sure she knows what exactly the head movement means, so I haven’t named it yet.

Our neighbors had guests over the weekend, so I clicked her for looking at them (without reacting) through the fence. That seemed to work OK too, but I’m still not sure she gets it.

Gigi recommended dropping something novel on the floor and clicking Lilly for looking at it. So, we might try that.

I’ve also started a few sessions clicking her for blinking so that we can working on making a sleepy/relaxed face on command. Unfortunately, Lilly tends to lick her lips when she blinks, especially if I have the clicker and treats. We’ve already put lick your lips on command, so if my timing isn’t perfect, then Lilly thinks she’s being rewarded for licking, which she already does a lot because it makes me laugh and because she’s nervous.

So, I try to wait for a blink that isn’t paired with lipwork, but it’s hard and slow, and Lilly gets frustrated, which prompts more lip-licking.

Relaxed Mouth
While giving Lilly time to settle in at Gigi’s new indoor training facility, I sit on my tailgate next to Lilly’s crate and click when she relaxes her mouth. Again, I haven’t put a word to it because Lilly isn’t offering it consistently.

Go to Mat
We’ve worked with a go-to-place command before, but I backtracked. So, I’m doing open shaping sessions. Lilly gets the idea pretty quickly and races to her bed and throws herself down for clicks/treats. She doesn’t quite get that she’s supposed to stay there until released, unless I give a stay command, but we’re working on it.

I just re-read that section in the book last night, and it seems I’m doing things a little wrong, but here is some video of us training. I just learned how to embed clips from YouTube, so let’s hope this works. If not, then here’s a direct link.

She also lays on a small rug in the kitchen while I make dinner. I even got her to lay on another blanket in the basement while I worked out this morning. Maybe it was all the motion, but she didn’t offer it. She only did it if I gave the “Nest” command.

I still need to find a portable mat to take to classes and in public, but we used a blanket on Saturday during our solo get-used-to-the-new-place time. I laid the blanket in the parking lot at Gigi’s and had Lilly go from her crate in my car to the blanket a few times. The only way I could get it was to jackpot the blanket. A plain click/treat would not work in this new setting.

Then, I had her just sit and relax on the blanket for a while. I sat with her and massaged her ears like the book recommends.

So, yes, as my husband said in TOTAL dismay, I drove 75 miles round trip, an hour each way, just to have Lilly sit on a blanket in a parking lot for about 15 minutes.

But, if I want Lilly to be able to attend classes inside this winter, I need to work her toward feeling comfortable there when the stimuli is low. Either that, or let’s hope it’s a mild winter, and we can continue having classes outside.

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

Rox - October 30, 2007

Thanks, Leslie, for visiting and commenting. I appreciate your input (of course). As a green handler, I did not get the nuance between shaping and capturing. The info helps. Thankfully, I think we’ve worked out the “Look” thing. I’ll be writing about it soon, but we’ve worked up to Lilly looking at the livestock nearby.

I’ve joined your Control Unleashed Yahoo Group, but I have not posted an introduction or any questions yet. I want to finish my second read of the book and then spend some time reading what’s been posted to your group since August. But, essentially, Lilly is much like your Snap.

Thanks again for visiting. I’ll be writing in the coming weeks about my use of ideas from the book.

Leslie McDevitt - October 29, 2007

Hi 🙂
I stumbled across your site and had a couple of comments–one, re: your feeling discouraged that Lilly would not be allowed in a CU class based on the criteria in the book. the truth is that I do take the ‘higher end’ dogs into my classes, though I may do a private or two with them first, but I figured when I was writing the book that people would start trying to teach their own CU classes–which they are– and I was afraid people not ready to be instructors for a class full of the ‘high end’ behavior dogs would end up with a room full of over threshold stressed dogs and then blame the book, so I was very careful to describe what dogs I thought would be most easily handled when people started experimenting with doing these exercises in a group.
Second, the shaping for looking thing—I know I suggested the duct tape X but usually what I end up doing is just holding up a random object, a pen, a book, whatever, quickly and when the dog looks to see what it is I click that. so it’s not really a shaping exercise when I do it but a capturing exercise, I hold up something quickly in the dog’s periphery and they turn to see what it is (if a dog would be frightened by that of course i woudn’t do it that way, but usually this seems to be the fastest and least painless way to get this behavior started) then i transfer it on to familiar people and dogs that the CU dog is comfortable with before trying it on ‘triggers’
so anyway I hope that helps and good luck,

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