Last week I spent five days at Natural Encounters in their Professional Training Workshop hosted and run by Steve Martin and Dr. Susan Friedman. I watched crows and parrots learning new behaviors so fast that my head spun. The trainers there are so good they could train a flock of parrots to build a shopping mall in two weeks. (I’m talking about you, Steve Martin and Wouter Stellaard.) As part of their training, they frequently use lures and what they call “prompts, and quickly end up with animals that reliably perform to the smallest of cues, every time.
I found that encouraging, because I too have found lures to be invaluable training aids (IF used correctly and in the right context–more on that later) . Yet, I have heard some argue that one should NEVER use a lure. Recently I heard a trainer say that, to her, luring was anathema to good training. “Dogs learn much better if you let them figure out the behavior for themselves.“ And yet, many of us do get a behavior started using a lure or prompt. Since this seems to be a somewhat controversial topic, I thought it might be interesting to begin a discussion about it.
First, we need to define what we’re talking about. I’m going to use the training I got to do at NEI as an example (because I have lots of photos of it and I selfishly love seeing pictures of George, the parrot I was honored to work with last week at NEI). My goal was to teach George to hang from a hula hoop by his beak, feet well off the perch and up in the air.
Shaping is the reinforcement of successive approximations of a desired behavior. Thus, my training with George consisted of marking and reinforcing first walking closer and closer to the hoop, then raising up his head, then touching the hoop with his beak, then holding onto the hoop for a micro second, etc.
Luring is showing the animal something it wants, usually food, and using it to encourage the animal to move in the desired way. On the first few trials, I let George see that my right hand held food, and used it to encourage him to move toward the hoop.
Prompting is similar to luring, except the animal can’t see the food. For example, I held my hand (the one that always delivered food) above the hoop to encourage George’s head to move upward toward the hoop. I marked each approximation with “Good,” and then fed from the hand that did the prompting. On occasion, (I think when I was losing faith), I’d hold the food so that it was visible, but my coach Wouter encouraged me to hide the food and use prompts rather than a lure. In his experience, it is more effective to move one’s body in a way to encourage the desired action, rather than let the food itself be the focus. That way, he argued, the animal pays more attention to what he is doing in relation to the environment. A compelling point, I think.
Free shaping, on the other hand, waits for the learner to initiate a behavior him or herself. For example, I could have stood still and waited for George to just look toward the hoop. I’d reinforce that, and continue reinforcing each step closer to the desired behavior, without ever giving him any clues to what I wanted. I have no doubt that this method would have been successful. However, it would have taken much longer to achieve the goal.
Some argue that free shaping is a more effective way of training, because the animal figures it all out for himself, from the very beginning. However, in her lectures (brilliant!) Dr. Susan Friedman, reminded us that she hasn’t seen any evidence to support this claim.
Some even suggest that one isn’t using shaping at all unless one uses exclusively free shaping. For example, Karen Pryor, who has done fantastic work encouraging the training world to use positive reinforcement, has argued that it’s not shaping if you are using a lure or prompt.
Let me delve into this by continuing to talk about training George, because there’s really nothing different about it than teaching a dog a trick. I’m going to combine lures and prompts here into one category, and call them L/P’s just to keep us from getting bogged down.
I first used a L/P to create a success for George—if you move toward the hoop, even just by leaning forward, you get R+ (positive reinforcement, in this case in the form of food). Once it was clear he began moving forward without seeing the food, even just a bit, I closed my fist and used my hand as a prompt. But as quickly as I could (and still be successful), I dropped out the prompt completely and let him do it on his own. I added prompts back in when it was time for him to raise his head and move his beak toward the hoop, but again, only enough to get the behavior started.
“He’s looking for information,” Wouter would say, if I had waited too long for George to move to the next step. “Go ahead and help him out.” And I think that’s an important point here, at least from my perspective. If George didn’t get enough reinforcement, he simply would have given up and gone off to do something else. All the birds at NEI have 100% choice about whether they want to engage in training or not. If an animal is engaged in a training exercise, and truly wants to figure out the goal (or, better stated: continue getting more treats), the trainers at NEI always provide them the information they are looking for.
Free Shaping is great, really great, if you want to let your dog offer a behavior on her own and then turn it into something fun. A perfect example is to present your dog with a cardboard box, and start marking (with a clicker or a word like “Good”) anything that looks interesting. Free shaping has has some important benefits: It’s great for dogs who have little confidence, and are hesitant or shut down, because they can’t lose. Anything they do leads to something they want. They start learning that their own behavior has an effect on the world, and can start coming out of their shell. It also teaches dogs to be creative, which can be a wonderful way to promote mental exercise. (Pat Miller has a great article in Whole Dog Journal comparing luring and free shaping, and some good ideas for free shaping games with your dog.)
However, if you have something in mind that you want your dog to do, and you’d like to help him understand what it is you want, L/P’g is a wonderful training aid. The key is to get rid of the L/P as quickly as you can by fading it away, or turning it into your visual cue. I’ve used it for years to teach Sit and Lie Down, and I’ve never found a more effective method. Why not use what works? It appears to me that in many contexts, it makes learning more fun for the dog.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: It’s wonderful to be back, but I can’t say enough good things about the workshop at NEI. It’s pricey, but if you can find the money it’s worth it and more. For five days, 24 of us (I’m guessing 2/3 training professionals in zoological parks, 1/3 dog trainers) spent half our time hearing lectures from Dr. Friedman and Steve Martin. You’ll never see better training videos anywhere. Ever. Honest. Operant conditioning and positive reinforcement is a topic I know a little about, and yet I learned a lot. The other half of our days was spent in a team with three others and a coach. Meg, Blake and Jane and I were lucky to have Wouter as a coach. I learned so much from him, not just about training, but about coaching. My primary goal was to improve my timing; it seems like I’ve gotten slower starting a few years ago. I definitely improved, although I’d still have a long way to go to match that of Wouter. I can’t recommend this workshop enough. They hold it twice a year, at least will next year–if you can possibly make it, I highly recommend it. I’ve rarely been in such a supportive and engaging environment.
The workshop was in Florida, a bit of a switch from our weather here. Yesterday was a bit brutal here in Wisconsin, because it was windy and felt terribly cold. But Saturday was lovely. It was only 6 degrees, but sunny and calm, and Maggie and I had a great time working sheep up in the pasture. I didn’t even feel cold.
But then… all those beautiful colors in Florida at Natural Encounters! I can’t help but add some more here, even though it’s a far cry from our snow-covered landscape. Here’s a Blue and Gold Macaw (we each got to work our “own” macaw, either a Scarlet or a Blue and Gold.
Here are the riotous colors of the Scarlet Macaw. A far cry from the black, brown and white of a Wisconsin winter:
I think I’m going to buy my black, white and brown dogs some new collars!
Thank you for writing about your experiences at the Natural Encounter’s Professional Trainers Workshop. I only just recently started studying animal behavior from a science and dog trainers point of view. You might say I am slowly following a hunch after having an experience with a wild barn swallow who found its way in through an open door of my home even with my four medium sized dogs also inside the house. There was a synergy with all that occurred that led to the bird volunteerly step onto my out reached finger and allowing me to carry him/her safely out the front door.
I wished I’d started back then in 2006. Now I hope to contribute to the better understanding of animal human connections to help pave a road for animals and people to coexist in closer quarters.
Your blog here – this is my first article to read – is giving me a good visual learning of vocabular of the field. I thank you for that!
As for commenting on the content I wonder what place the thoughts of the tester has on the outcome of the lesson. The bird I convinced to step onto my finger and carry him to safety did not know me. My actions were both gentle and verbal directed to a third party aka God, simply asking Please let this bird know I just want to help him get back outside to his family and friends. My dogs and the bird responded favorably and calmly with only one little hiccup before success. The full event probably lasted 5 minutes.
I think there is a lot more to what and how we can communicate than meets our reality today.
Thank you for writing and sharing your experiences.
I have seen many dogs get pretty frustrated with shaping. And frustration can hamper acquisition. Of course, maybe it is poorly utilization shaping I am seeing. Information is good. I think dependency on L/P, and staying too long with L/P gets people into trouble. How could anyone play red light/green light if they were only told green light, and had to guess when it was red light?
Poor utilization that is….
Jann Becker says
That makes a lot of sense; I’ll have to look up Miller’s article. My senior crossover dogs tend to sit, and stay sat, apparently wondering what on earth it is I want. Having been trained to “stay,” if they just stay LONG enough…something good will happen, and then we can all go back to the couch. It’d only be fair to give them a prompt.
We just had some inadvertent reinforcement: a strange SUV crossed the bridge, turned into our (long) driveway, Andy went as berserk as a 9-yr-old retriever can, and lo and behold! The car went away! See what happens when I bark, Mom?
Vicki in Michigan says
What an excellent thing to get to do! Thank you for sharing it with us. Macaw-colored collars — sounds like a bright spot on a snowy landscape!
I think giving the animal useful information is a good thing. I’m working on body awareness with Finna trying to get her to think about what she’s doing. If I don’t care which part of her body we’ll be working with I just tell her training time and wait to see what she gives me and we build off that. If I want to teach her to wiggle her ears on cue I’ll tell her training time then brush a fingertip across the edge of her ear which makes her ear twitch so I can mark and reward it. Now she knows that it is ears that are the relevant body part and can offer ear movements and I can click and reward shaping the movement I want (she has great semaphore ears). I could simply sit and wait until she moves an ear but it’s never made sense to me to not help her. Why should she have to keep guessing until she gets to her ears when I can simply tell her that ears are what I want. She still has to figure out exactly what movement I’m looking for so her brains are engaged. I just simplified the initial step by telling her the relevant body part is ears.
I really enjoyed this post! Thanks so much. I like that you used shaping and then went to L/P temporarily as needed when the parrot “was looking for information”. It makes sense to me on an emotional level as it feels more gentle, more kind to help our animal friends understand us more easily. Hindered by our difference in language/thought processing why not help that along!
Terry Golson says
Am quite jealous of your time with the birds in Florida (said from New England where it has been around 0 degrees!) I’ve registered for Dr. Friedman’s class with camelids next November – You should sign up for it, a tad different than sheep! Just a clarification: Karen Pryor is very precise about her definitions, hence she would say that using a lure is not shaping, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t use L/P. I’ve seen her use both many times, and have also discussed this with her. But, like you did with the parrots, she uses them judiciously and subtly, and ceases L/P quickly (sometimes before you’ve even noticed that she’s used it.)
Alice R. says
I’m so happy to hear that I can use L/P with shaping. My 11 month old puppy gets that the shaping/clicker is a fun game that he controls, but is frustrated by his (or more importantly my) inability to get it quickly. He is whip smart, and I’m sure my ineptness is part of the equation. One day when I was trying to shape him to sit beside me, he tried to figure out why what worked before no longer worked. I saw the lightbulb go on in his brain and could practically hear him think “I know! Something big!”, and he took off across the room, jumped on an ottoman, leaped into the chair, turned around, sat and looked at me expectantly. Of course, I rewarded him well for that can do and want to please attitude. Now, although I no longer reward it, it’s the default behavior when he can’t figure what I want if I have the clicker. I think a combination L/P with shaping will really help both of us move along much more quickly.
Erica Pytlovany says
LOVE this post. This idea of “luring is evil” has gotten so baked into the dog training world, and it’s senseless. Good training is about communication, not guesswork. Why wouldn’t we use all tools available? Not to mention, it’s so much easier for humans to learn how to fade a prompt or lure than to learn how to free shape!
How interesting, I was just having a conversation about this very topic. 🙂 Seems that week “prompted” similar musings from both of us. You got your blog post out first though!
Another option, which I see as between luring and prompting, is a moving target. I teach my animals (horses and dogs) both a still target and a following target. I know Wouter said he likes to be honest and not to move the target but I feel that if trained with a good history and clear criteria, it’s not dishonest, it’s just a different kind of cue.
The advantage of a moving target as I see it, is that you do have the animal’s focus on the behavior, rather than just following the food, but it seems more clear than a prompt.
It was fascinating working with the birds and very different so it’s hard to tell how the same thing would work with our animals who are more gravity based.
My philosophy is to use the tool that will work best for a particular dog. A dog that has a lot of experience with free shaping has learned how to learn that way and will offer behavior to get reinforced. I do like to use free shaping as much as possible so that a dog learns how to do it but sometimes it is more important to teach a particular behavior and free shaping can definitely frustrate some dogs.
My dog loves free shaping but sometimes she just isn’t getting it so in those cases, I use a prompt which is usually just having her follow my finger without any food present. Bringing a lure in makes her too excited and does not work. With other dogs, I have seen luring work very well to get the dog on the right track and able to start the shaping process, but it is very common for lures to be overused which causes its own problems. Also, for some dogs that have been lured into doing things that are a little scary or uncomfortable, a lure seems to make them hesitant to follow the lure.
“it’s not shaping if you are using a lure or prompt.”
I’m pretty sure neither the dog nor the average owner cares about this fine linguistic/tactical distinction. It’s really about what works, isn’t it ?(within the realm of non-aversive methods of course.. because aversive methods “work” too) And as you point out, free shaping can be great for the non-confident dog. And also for trainers interested in practicing the theory. But it’s a boring drag for the dog/owner who isn’t.
Excellent post! So interesting. I would have discounted the concept of free-shaping, except for your small note about how it could be used to encourage a hesitant dog. What a great idea… wish I had known that some years ago. I have an 8 year old that just isn’t good at finding his own things to do inside the house (besides trying to be next to me). Free shaping sounds like a great way to encourage him.
Actually, I have parrots too, but I’ve rarely attempted to train them the way I do my dogs (who all learn ‘sit/stay/down/wait/etc’). What did they use for a lure? And was it clicker reinforcement? I’ve been concerned my birds would copy the clicker noise and then I would hear nothing but! The Timneh grey already knows all the dog commands 🙂
Ugh. I’m not sure how this topic got so controversial. I would love to hear from the trainers who argue that we should only free-shape the answer to this question: How would you like it?
Imagine starting a new job, or a new class, or moving to a new neighborhood. And no one tells you what they expect. They reward you if you randomly offer the correct behavior and ignore you if you don’t. How would you feel about the job? The class? The new neighbors? Wouldn’t you wonder why they were not willing to share the information they already had with you?
I just don’t understand how this became accepted in some circles as normal interactions for social creatures. It seems maddening to me.
Jack always loves training sessions, but I tried free-shaping him and he got frustrated. He barked a lot. He started offering all sorts of random behaviors. He jumped. He whined. He was a frustrated, unhappy dog. He likes prompts. He likes lures. He even likes to be told “nope” in a neutral voice when he offers a behavior that is not what I’m looking for.
I’m not saying it has no place. I’m just wondering a) who came up with it, b) who decided it was the best solution, and c) in what contexts they ever saw it used between social animals in a natural setting? I think for instinctive or hard-wired behaviors like hunting, herding, tracking it can work well, when the behavior is self-rewarding. But for learning novel behaviors or putting existing behaviors on cue, luring and prompting just seems so much less frustrating for the learner.
I wanted to add that this leaves out my favorite method: Capture training, or catching the dog in the act of doing what you want and giving the cue as they do it.
The breeder of my parents’ dog gave this tip many years ago, and it worked wonders with her and with Jack.
For a young puppy, get down on your knees and clap your hands or wiggle your fingers to get pup’s attention. Pup will automatically come running over IF nothing better is going on.
Once pup hits the halfway mark, start clapping with enthusiasm and call “come come come!” the rest of the way, then give a food reward when they reach you. And presto, puppy learns to come when she is 10 weeks old.
Similarly for “sit”, when you are standing use anything to get puppy to come over. Puppy will automatically sit to look up at your face. As the butt is heading to the floor, say a bright “Sit!” and then “Good!” and treat.
Of course you need to practice later with the recall game and then gradually move to proofing the commands, but most pups will learn a rudimentary come and sit within a few days using this method.
This was very interesting, thank you. I will lure if I think the dog needs it, but I find that I let clients lure, quite often the lure stays there. I use prompts a great deal, quite often environmental ones. Prompts do mean the animal has to think not just react or follow his nose. I do think that the learning is more stable then because the animal has built their own neural pathway on they way to getting what they want.
I admit I was kind of relieved when it became clear we were going to be allowed to get behaviours with lures. That’s the way I do it! I’m not a guru by any means, though, and sometimes it feels a bit lonely out there arguing for the use of lures – which I do, because I think it’s easier (read, more fun) for both trainers and animals.
Sometimes I feel a bit perplexed about recommendations to get risk averse dogs free shaping. My risk averse dog hated free shaping. If he couldn’t figure out what he was getting clicked for immediately, he got frustrated. In contrast, Erik the vallhund is a natural at this. He persists quite happily, seemingly trusting that reinforcement will come, information will come, and he will figure this out sooner or later. As such, it’s harder to get him frustrated in training sessions. My solution to Kivi’s risk aversion was to teach him targeting with various body parts and use that to get behaviours. He was much more comfortable with this. I did get him shaping almost at Erik’s level eventually, but it took me considering what he lacked that Erik had that made shaping worrying for him and enjoyable for Erik and working on that. I came to the conclusion it was a mixture of being hesitant to offer behaviours (often in spite of reinforcement rate) and a lack of persistence. I used slightly challenging target cues to prompt attempts and reinforced him for even looking like he might try something. He learnt that venturing behaviours was worthwhile after all. I also worked on improving his persistence by carefully riding the extinction wave. Not sure that was “good training”, but it achieved my goal of teaching him that if he just holds on that little bit longer, tries that one more time, or a little bit harder, reinforcement will come. So, now he likes shaping (with the help of prompts) almost as much as Erik does. And I tend to encourage people to target train their risk averse dogs for confidence, and then work on body awareness and persistence and improving risk taking separately. But, what do I know? 🙂 Plenty of people have told me free shaping has been a huge help for their risk averse dog. Maybe Kivi was just an odd case.
As an aside, I briefly worked with a bird at the NEI workshop that was known to take swipes at hands and fly at heads, so we were extra careful not to frustrate him or leave him fishing for information. If there was nothing to reward for a few trials, we would cue behaviours he knew or just reinforce him for following my prompt hand so he could get his peanuts before he got annoyed. He was a fast and eager learner, but he did rap my knuckles once with his beak, and I am not sure why! Presumably I did something “wrong”, but only he knew what. I had fun with him, but it was tempered by anxiety that at any moment he was going to find fault with my training and let me know about it.
I use lure/prompt far more than shaping, but I have started using shaping to address Sandy’s barking. She is generally a quiet dog, but certain triggers cause her to bark her fool head off. Praising her when she does *not* bark after a trigger has been surprisingly effective at moderating the behavior. The hard part is to notice the absence of barking so that I can quickly reward the blessed silence.
The most dramatic success, although completely accidental, was with Sandy’s recall. We were at a crowded dog park, Sandy had lost track of me, and she was looking around anxiously. I called out “Sandy-boo!” in a sing-song voice, just to let her know where I was. To my surprise, Sandy kicked on the afterburners and ran full-speed past about 20 dogs to get to me. Needless to say, I gave her a whole handful of treats!
Not sure if that was truly an example of shaping, but Sandy has recalled reliably to “Sandy-boo!” ever since. There are few things more rewarding than watching a dog put every fiber of its being into a recall. And yes, I had a beagle mix who recalled reliably, but often with the enthusiasm of a teenager being separated from a video game.
“He’s looking for more information.” Tricia, thank you! I loved this post, and I’m afraid of crows… do not know why. They’re smart and everything but they just scare me. Anyway, back to the quote at the top. Clicker training has been utilized by my school extensively for the last 5 or 6 years, that’s a lot of dogs who know it. It had started to really take hold in 2007, when I was still working with my previous guide. We had a clicker training session at a conference I attended and I was working with an instructor. I was trying to get Torpedo to target the button panel near the elevater. He got fine when we were very close to the panel, but when I started to back him up to prompt him to go towards the button on his own, he stood still. The instructor said from beside me, “Just wait, he’s thinking about it.” It’s instruction like that which helps me. I find dog training, especially clicker training wonderful, both fun for me and the dogs I’ve had, but it can be very… very visual and sometimes I find this frustrating when no one is around or willing to describe to me what my dog is doing. Is he sitting still, staring at me, or is he ignoring me and sniffing something else when I want his attention? This is the problem I have with the idea of complete free-shaping. How am I supposed to do that?
“How would you like it?” Beth, thank you! I’ve always believed that if we’re teaching anyone something new, we should give them all of the information they will need to be successful and this goes for people as well as our dogs. I trained Seamus last week to give me a high-five on command. It was easy and I think I used a combination of lures/prompts and a bit of free-shaping because he already loves to give me his paw, Golden Retreiver owners will know what I’m talking about. When I first brought out the clicker, he went nuts. He began offering everything. He sat, he laid down, he targeted my hand a dozen times to get me to give him the food. I waited him out, realizing he was just excited. I knew he was both excited and a bit frustrated because I wasn’t telling him what to do to get the food. I wasn’t waiting him out because I thought he’d do what I wanted eventually, but only to get him to get the sillies out of his system. I know I would hate it if someone didn’t give me any information about what I was supposed to do for work and then rewarded me when I inadvertantly did something right. Anyway, when he finally sat again, clearly calmer, I held out my hand, palm up and waited. He lifted his paw and at first targeted my leg with it, but I clicked and treated anyway because I wanted him to get the idea that his paw was what I wanted. Once he began consistently putting his paw in my hand I moved my palm outward, like you’d do when you want to give someone a high-five. Seamus actually seemed to respond to this better, immediately placing his paw on my hand where as before, I think the flat palm idea was confusing him because he had to look down to see my hand. Now, he gives high-five like a pro. My coworker thinks it’s undignified for a service dog such as him, but I think it’s adorable. Perhaps I’ll get my husband to video it and put it up here.
Oh what a nice article!
I am surprised that there are some people arguing one should never use lures.I find it a bit troubling especially with dog owners who wish to train their dogs the basics. I am not a dog trainer but here my 2 cents:
I can see how not only the dog but also the owner gets frustrated. Let’s take the average Joe, who just adopted a pup and wants to teach him “down”: the owner read about free shaping, how to do it and is all geared up with treats in the pocket waiting for his dog to go “down”. The dog is ready too, because he can smell the treats. Now he looks, sniffs, walks in a circle, sits and tries to find a clue on how to get the treat. What if the dog doesn’t figure it out, get’s frustrated and walks away, leaving the owner standing there? I’d be a bit frustrated/discouraged as a dog owner. The dog will probably figure it out the next time, if the owner will continue this approach. But what if we lose the owner here? After all, training needs to be rewarding for the trainer too. If there are no immediate rewards for the owner, it is safe to assume he/she gets discouraged to train just as fast a dog gets discouraged to train. I think this should be considered when recommendations go out…especially when a word such as NEVER is used.
Having said that, I truly believe shaping is a great approach, if one is prepared to put in the time/commitment. It is not so easy for a not-trainer-person.
Christy Paxton says
I use all of these methods, depending on the dog and the feedback I get from her. It doesn’t make sense to me to limit my options; I could lose the opportunity to help someone if I did that. As long as it falls within my training philosophy (kindness, honor the animal, have fun, etc.), I will consider it/try it/use it.
From the “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” department, this fun example: Several years back I was attempting to teach my dog Tawny “Paws Up” on my forearm. I tried every “proper” method and she wouldn’t budge; I couldn’t even get her to move a toe! It finally dawned on me that because I had to work very hard to get her to stop jumping, she was likely following the “don’t put paws on people” rule she had so thoroughly learned. Tactic change! I put my forearm behind her front legs, gently swept her front paws up and clicked. Within just a few minutes she was offering it eagerly. Experiences like that have taught me to keep an open mind!
I love this discussion. It’s great to hear all the different points of views and anecdotes on shaping, luring, prompting. I use them all without really putting a name to it; rather using what seems to work given the context. I also love that Trisha can take an amazing week at a multi-species training center and bring it back for us to thoughtfully consider as regular Joes and Josephines for our dogs. Thanks!
Laura, I hope you can post the video. I think Seamus giving you a high five is splendid.
Christy, your story reminds me of the time we gave Jack one of those doggy IQ tests. It’s not training, per se. But one of the tasks is to hide a treat under a cup and see how long it takes the dog to get it.
To our surprise, clever Jack sat there. He woofed. He shuffled his feet. But he made no effort to move the cup.
Luckily, my husband had a light bulb moment. “He’s been trained not to touch our stuff. Try it with something of his.”
So I replaced the cup with a toy to hide the treat, and he knocked it over before I could even start timing him.
Funny what different dogs learn. We had a springer spaniel when I was a girl who would not “speak” for love or money because she did not bark in the house. She wasn’t trained this way, she just made a rule for herself. I finally trained her by having our other dog demonstrate!
Fanny Gott says
This inspired a blog post from me: http://www.fannygott.com/shaping-luring-prompting
I hope it’s not too far off topic
I’m a high school teacher, and yes, I know that dogs and humans are not the same, but there are certainly similarities in learning styles between the two species. Some people do very well with “shaping,” being given a bunch of materials and a goal and being allowed to figure out the best method to accomplish a task, but many more people experience extreme frustration in that situation. They want guidance, models of effective ways to accomplish the task, bad examples to avoid, and as much information as possible.
If creativity is the goal (like in Tricia’s “free shaping”), then I can see shaping being very effective–at least for some. But if accomplishing a pre-determined task is the goal, I think human students and dogs share the desire to be given the information they need to do it right. It is one aspect of learning that dogs and humans definitely have in common: they want the admiration and respect of those they care about, and in many cases, they feel pride in their own accomplishments when they do the task effectively.
I agree with Beth’s analogies of a new job, neighborhood or class. I would very quickly give up–or blow up–if I had to guess what was right all the time and never got any feedback when I did something wrong.
For “safety” commands (recall, sit, etc.) I’ve used L/P and it’s been pretty effective. Since Cecil is a very expressive dog, capturing cute stuff (“crawl”, “rollover”, etc.) is easy so I don’t usually shape. However, I will sometimes say, “Cecil, do something cute” with nothing in mind. Sometimes he does something unexpected, but honestly it usually devolves into demand/confusion barking. I will try some of Pat Miller’s object-based shaping exercises, since I have a dog who loves to learn and that could curb the barking default behavior.
Really enjoyed the rundown on the seminar, and grateful that everyone is so tolerant of relative novices such as myself. This is an impressive bunch!
I could be totally wrong about this, but I think luring may have gotten a bad rep because it can look like a “lazy” way to train compared to other methods. The objections sound like they may come from the same people who don’t like using treats at all, that see them as a form of bribing and worry that a lot of people never make the effort to fade the treat and so dogs remain dependent on them. Like others have said, shaping is a lot more work for the trainer (and the dog) and “feels” like more of an accomplishment when successful. I know one thing, no way would I ever be patient enough for shaping, altho I admire those who are.
I agree with Beth. Most training can easily be translated into lessons for a young child. But I don’t think anyone would suggest waiting for a child to have the right behavior so it could be rewarded. I think you need to show the way. Of course, dogs aren’t children, but it’s curious that shaping is probably the one method that is not easily transferable to humans.
I’m assuming this workshop/seminar is restricted to dog trainers and professionals? I would love to attend something like this, but I’m afraid it would go right over my head. But thanks for letting us have a glimpse into that world.
Trisha, you had mentioned you would talk about where the parrots come from in last week’s post. If you have time, could you let us know? (Unless I completely missed your response, if so I’ll go look again.) Thanks!
Thanks for the reminder HRF about where the birds at NEI come from. Sorry slow to get to it, I’m still a tad overwhelmed–writing up notes from NEI, working on speech for IFAAB next week, etc. But I did ask and the owner/founder, Steve Martin, explained that with a few exceptions (birds from a rescue for example), the birds at NEI are all captive bred. NEI never takes birds from the wild. They are also participating in working with some other organizations to breed and wild-release an endangered species, the Blue-Headed Macaw. Hope that is the information you were looking for.
Dave Collis says
I have been using a format for some time.
Break the behavior task into small easy slices.
Lure twice, Prompt Twice,
Look with Intent ( body parts towards where you want the subject to go)
Pause and let them think and then very subtly slightly move/direct.
The ‘instant’ the subject initiates action in the right direction ‘Jackpot’
(Keeping in Mind that the delivery of the reinforcer should match the wanted position.
This makes obtaining the behavior, extremely fast.
Very placed upon seeing this article.
Dave Collis, Black Creek, Vancouver Isl, B.C. CANADA
Fanny Gott says
HFR: If it’s my seminar you’re referring to – it’s open to anyone, and I assure you it won’t go over your head.
If I could talk to my dogs, I probably wouldn’t use much shaping. It’s just that we can’t really talk to them and tell them all the things we wish they knew. We don’t have a perfect way of communication with another species. Shaping is the closest that I come to explaining difficult things to them. Easy things can be showed in many ways, but the more complicated things are very difficult to show with a lure. Shaping becomes a language that the dog understands, and I think that takes away frustration and worrying much more than it adds to it.
Actually, shaping is very useful when raising children – the whole idea of “catching them being good” (positive feedback for desired behavior rather than negative feedback for undesired behavior). For children, the pattern is “I noticed that you did XXX. That seemed to work nicely. What do you think?”
The goal is to get the child to develop internal rewards for positive behaviors rather than working for external rewards. Hmm, sounds a lot like dog training . . .
Anyway, my experience is that shaping can be a powerful parenting technique, and certainly much more pleasant compared with constantly correcting undesired behavior. Not sure how it would work in a classroom situation, though, although I suspect that children would compete to be noticed for good behavior.
Don’t get me wrong – there is a place for “no” in dog training as well as parenting (especially where safety is concerned), and a place for luring/prompting/guidance, but shaping good behavior is definitely more fun.
Kate Hathway says
I agree with Beth – if no one gives you any information about what they want, it’s very frustrating to be stumbling around in the dark, so to speak. Not only can you bump into things, so that you start inching around, hoping you don’t get hurt, but a bit of fear can creep in, especially if the space you’re in is new to you. I don’t think that’s learning (which should be at least somewhat interesting, and hopefully somewhat fun) as much as it is slogging through an unpleasant experience.
If encouragement takes the form of treats and sounds, then give them, and progress onto other rewards, such as touch and applause, as appropriate. These things work with most species, and make them happy, leading to confidence to try other things, on their own, in the future.
I also like to use ‘capturing’ for so-called ‘natural’ behaviors, especially to get dogs to potty & poop in a place and time that’s convenient, and not have them wander around when I need them to focus and finish. It starts out slow, but saying, “Go potty” and “Good potty” as they start and finish peeing, and “Find a spot” and “Good find a spot” may have the neighbors thinking I’m weird, but when it’s pouring or freezing, or we’re in an unfamiliar place, having a dog that can get things done in a minute or two is so much nicer than standing there pleading or fuming at a dog that is just thrilled to be sniffing all over the place, no matter the weather (and possibly coming inside to do their business because the human half got fed up and made them come inside after 10 minutes of fruitless effort).
Bruce, I agree completely. One of my points was that ‘shaping’ and ‘luring’ are not at all incompatible, and can be done simulateneously. Luring and free shaping refer to how the behavior is initiated, (does one ‘help’ the learner or not?), while ‘shaping’ simply means reinforcing gradual approximations toward a goal behavior. It is true, as I noted, that Karen Pryor doesn’t define these terms this way, but Dr. Susan Friedman and the other behavior analyists that I know do.
Kerry McDonough says
I got so stuck when first attempting shaping until I realized that a prompt was a great way to start. Even the 50 things to do with a box has a prompt. You are bringing a novel object into the room. That why it is a fun activity for a new shaper.
There is a really good shaping DVD, The Magic of Shaping, by Pamela Dennison that shows how to shape tons of great activities from skateboarding to wiping paws, and she starts every activity with a prompt. I can’t remember for sure if she discusses the controversy, but I don’t think she brings it up. I remember watching it a few years ago and watching her beginning every activity with a prompt and thinking, but that is cheating! Then immediately pausing the DVD to try what she was doing with my own dogs. It made shaping click for me in a way it never would have if I’d stuck with my original mindset of free shaping is the only true shaping. Glad to hear that I’m not alone in the world of prompt-shaping because I’ll admit that I was still feeling a little guilty that I was cheating with how I shaped, but no more guilt!
This is how I teach my dogs to potty on command, and my ball-oriented dog has learned things like “Show me” (where the ball is) and “Go get it.” I think that’s what I’m doing… I just label what they’re already doing and they get rewarded with praise or a ball or whatever it is they want. They think they’re training me 😉
Hmmm. I have been pondering this, and I can’t help but wonder if the proponents of pure “free-shaping” actually are experiencing a Clever Hans scenario.
Clever Hans, if memory serves, could only “count” or perform his tricks when his handler was present. But his handler was giving no visible cues, nor conscious ones. Hans was apparently watching his breathing, or something similarly subtle.
I wonder if those who insist they get great results with no prompts are actually subconsciously prompting their dogs towards a certain behavior with their breathing, the direction and length of their gaze, and so on.
I will never forget trying to use the 2×2 weave method using free-shaping. I got no results. I mean none. Jack wandered around, frustrated, with no clue how he was meant to interact with these two poles.
I took poles home and practiced there, and added a subtle prompt to direct him to move through the poles and within minutes he totally got the game.
It would make for an interesting study: is free-shaping really done with no prompts? Or are dog/handler teams that work together exchanging such subtle cues that the handler is not aware of it?
Trisha, thank you for clarifying that shaping and luring can be done together. That plus the definition of shaping as “reinforcing gradual approximations toward a goal behavior” is very helpful.
Beth, the Clever Hans phenomenon is an interesting idea, and one I will ponder. I suppose we all want our dogs to act like Clever Hans – so in tune with us that they respond to cues that we do not even know we are giving. I suspect that most dogs do this to some degree.
Ultimately I am pragmatic. It does not matter to me whether the dog is responding to lures, prompts, subtle cues, or free-shaping – but I do want to understand what works so I can be a better trainer, for my sake and for the dogs’ sake.
Mary Gessert says
Fascinating! I will no longer feel guilty for luring my stray hound dog pup into a sit or down. Thanks for sharing this great experience.
Trisha, thank you for the info on the parrots (which I have zero experience with, btw). I once saw a documentary on parrots that was heartbreaking about how they capture them in the wild. In the end, they were saying that parrots are wild animals and not meant to be kept as pets. They followed this up with many horror stories about parrots kept as pets and why there are so many in rescue. One man had a furniture store and he took a parrot from a friend who couldn’t handle him anymore, somehow word got around that he was taking in parrots and within a short time he was overrun with unwanted parrots and ended up turning his store into a refuge. But a place like NEI clearly knows how to handle such birds and I’m glad they never take from the wild.
I know I’m probably missing something, but what is the technical difference between capturing and shaping? Is it just that with capturing you aren’t waiting for action as you are in shaping? Because what Bruce describes with children sounds like capturing to me more than shaping. I would think of shaping as putting your child in a position to help another child in need and waiting to see what he does whereas capturing would be randomly seeing your child helping another child on his own and then praising him. Right?
Yes, yes, yes! Free shaping has its place, but luring and prompting make me a happier trainer and I think my dogs are happier learners. Frustration can be a big problem for my dogs, and so can frantically throwing out behaviors in search of a reward when too little information is given.
Because I train for myself on my own dogs most of the time, I have just done it the way I felt worked best. Thanks for the R+!
Fanny Gott says
Beth: Yes, I think that dogs pick up on a lot of subtle cues. And I don’t think it matters much when it comes to getting started, but it would be a problem if you don’t make sure that the dog is able to generalise the behavior before you add a cue.
HFR: I don’t think the difference between capturing and shaping is distinct. All shaping starts with capturing something. Most capturing ends up in shaping at least some aspect of the behavior. You can sometimes capture a bigger chunk of behavior and sometimes you need more shaping to reach the end goal.
I am confused about the prompting definition. I always thought that food lures were prompts as the food is being used to evoke the behavior. Here the definition of prompting is “Prompting is similar to luring, except the animal can’t see the food.” but isn’t prompting anything you do to help the dog perform a behavior regardless if there’s food or not? Of course, the food will be removed quickly sooner than later and the dog will rely only on the hand signal .
It’s a common criticism that free-shaping often leads to frustration and the dog offering is totally random. Surely this is simply an example of a handler/ trainer who is NOT well-hearsed in the art of free-shaping. When carried out skillfully, the handler sets up the session and splits the behaviour into such small pieces that the target behaviours are very likely to occur. The dog should NOT be throwing random behaviours.
Re the frustration…in an ideal shaping session, there should be a click approx every 4-5 seconds (sometimes a bit longer). If not, then the session has been set up poorly. Perhaps the behaviour needs to be split even further or the antecedents need to change etc.
Luring and prompting can be great tools but often the animal is focused on the food rather than the behaviour. Then these lures/ prompts need to be fading out. Not just the food but other cues such as crouching down when teaching a dog to lie down. There are very little to no cues or prompts to fade out when freeshaping.
Although I will say that I think the average pet owner would struggle with freeshaping.
Charles Couturier says
Free shaping exploit SEEKING in all likelihood.
It says it all.
Charles G. Couturier
Scott Thomas says
It seems the path to take is dependent on the need as an end result. This is also dependent on the motor pathways that have a genetic basis. Show behaviors are different from behaviors that are a function of species or breed. Now my mind wanders to instinctual drift.
Lindsey W says
Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I’m a dog walker/animal advocate/PM super fan and was just told that “every animal can be trained except reptiles”, I thought cats were for sure one of those that couldn’t be trained but…
You were talking about using PROMPTING with the parrots, can you paint a situation or tell me which one of your books to look to for Dog Prompting?
Our trainer has given us some homework that is a tad upper level.
You rule and one of these days a woman named Lindsey is going to SOMEHOW show up at your door, begging to spend 1/2 a day with you on the farm (or working). Don’t be scared.