A Humbling Shaping Exercise

I’m so excited to announce that Bradley and I started our first canine sport class a little over a week ago.  It’s an agility foundations class.  Last night was our second class and we still have yet to lay eyes on actual agility equipment.  I had expected our instructor to take things slowly with all of us agility newbies.  However, I didn’t quite expect to take such small, calculated steps.  I’ve gotta say, I’m incredibly impressed with how the class is being operated so far.  I’m glad that we weren’t blindly thrown into the world of weave poles, A frames, jumps, dog walks, tires, etc.  This class is truly catered to the novice agility enthusiast with plans to compete in the future, which describes me to a ‘T’.

My experience with group classes is pretty limited.    Unfortunately, that limited experience has not, up until this point, exposed me to knowledge or skills that I didn’t already have a firm grasp on, so I felt like both Bradley and I were bored and wasting our time.  I’m very happy to say that is not the case with this class.  Heavy emphasis is being placed on teaching handlers the basics of clicker training and shaping.  Music to my ears!

Befitting to a foundations class, we are truly working from the ground up.  When I say the skills we’re learning and practicing are basic, I mean it.  But they are laying the foundation for effective handling once we’re ready to run an agility course.

Here’s a short video of a simple turn that took some time for us to get used to manipulating.  As easy as it looks, the footwork directly conflicts with the manner in which we normally take turns, so we got off to an awkward start.

We’ve been totally at home with the various exercises that have been presented to us, including shaping some new, simple behaviors, shaping interaction with various objects, demonstrating basic obedience skills and homework like working on loading the clicker and teaching some new behaviors, like bow, ‘sit pretty,’ turning in alternate directions and our own behavior shaping ideas.

Our homework this week is to teach our dogs a new behavior, using shaping.  I was having a hard time deciding on what to teach Bradley.  I wanted to come up with something interesting.  I was stuck though, so I decided to work on solidifying Bradley’s proficiency at the tricks we’ve started to work on.  With all the the training I’ve done with Bradley, there are very, very few parlor tricks that Bradley knows.  Almost everything I’ve taught him has a practical purpose.  I decided to let go of that, in this context, to simply allow us to get what we’re supposed to get out of the assignment- mastery building, not task training.

Humbled By Shaping
Bradley is a quick learner and a willing worker.  He excels at learning through clicker training and has learned the majority of service dog tasks that he knows through clicker training.  As I set out to work on our assignment to work on a new behavior, this evening, I took our overwhelming success rate for granted and was taken aback when we hit a speed bump.

The task: Roll over.
Probably second to giving paw, rolling over is one of the most common tricks that dog lovers tend to just assume a dog knows how to perform. It’s such a common behavior for a dog to learn, it’s almost as if people are under the impression that dogs are born knowing how to perform the trick on cue.  I can’t even count the number of dogs I’ve taught to roll over; while I have always used luring, I haven’t always utilized the method of shaping.  I set out to teach Bradley how to roll over, I fell back on the familiar tool of luring with a treat.  Already in high drive mode from earlier in the training session, Bradley had other things in mind, besides following the lure.

He was ecstatic.  True to his die-hard-clicker-training-loving soul, he was throwing off every single behavior he could think of that we had worked on recently.  Offered behaviors are my favorite part of clicker training.  They’re also Bradley’s favorite part.  At this point, however, he was way ahead of himself!  He was offering behaviors from lying on his side, bowing, twirling in circles- to everything in between.  Adorable as it was, I noticed a feeling creeping up that should never be a welcome guest in the context of clicker training: frustration.

Fortunately, I had mindfulness on my side and was able to gently let go of the approaching frustration, take a step back and evaluate how to proceed so as not to communicate any frustration to Bradley.  I knew that if frustration was present, the training session would have to end.

I was able to identify the first roadblock that we were experiencing; Bradley was not paying attention to the intended lure.  It wasn’t a matter of refusing food because of stress.  He was simply going a million miles per hour and leaving me, kibble in hand, in the dust.  After identifying that problem, I was able to set him up for success in following the lure and then had the opportunity to mark and reinforce that piece of the behavior.  He was able to reel himself in, slow down, and keep his eye on the prize.

Once he was consistently following the lure, I still had to take baby steps.  We had a major success, when he finally stopped doing entirely incompatible behaviors to rolling over, like offering a lie on his opposite side.  From that point on, I was able to mark every little step in the right direction, as he brought his head toward the lure, putting himself in a more compatible position for rolling over.  He got jackpots for rolling onto a hip or a shoulder and got the biggest, final jackpot reward for rolling all the way over.

Setting out to accomplish this task, I never would have thought that it would have taken so much effort and calculation to get Bradley to the point at which we concluded the session.  From a learning and bonding perspective, I can wholeheartedly affirm that I’d rather it have gone the way it did than have achieved immediate, almost thoughtless success.

Training sessions aren’t only for the dogs 🙂


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