This is an expansion of a post about a possible cause of stress in shaping that I sent to the Training Levels Yahoo group.
Shaping involves extinction. That is, ceasing to reward something that has been repeatedly rewarded. In the real world, for humans and observably for other animals, that is stressful. The classic examples are when an elevator stops coming when the button is pushed, or when a candy machine just sits there after you put in the correct change and push the button. What usually follows? In the elevator case, repeated pushing of the button. Harder, faster. With the candy machine, all that, and possibly pounding, shaking, yelling. If you think about an animal’s behavior being tied to survival, something suddenly not working anymore is a danger signal. Oh oh, this place or this method that I was relying on no longer provides food. I’m going to have to start all over again and find somewhere or something else.
We are taught that when we suddenly stop rewarding something that a dog has been rewarded for, to be ready for an extinction burst. That is, the behavior rises in frequency and intensity before it fades away. Extinction is not fun for the dog in this circumstance! It is frustrating.
OK, back to shaping. When we shape, we are introducing tiny little extinctions over and over again. That’s what successive approximation is. “Fido, THAT behavior is not getting paid for anymore, it is up to you to figure out something that is.”
When I see the really great trainers shape, there is another characteristic besides their ability to detect the tiniest behaviors and differences in behaviors to reinforce. Another skill is that they are constantly watching the animal’s demeanor, as much as its actual movement, and are responding to that. They can keep that extinction process as gentle as possible and keep the animal trusting that the world hasn’t come to an end when they stop clicking for something. And of course these two skills go together. Seeing and responding to the tiniest movements does tend to keep the rate of reinforcement high.
Also they think empathetically. There is a clinically proven human tendency (the “curse of knowledge”) to assume that when we have something visualized or auralized in our heads, that the others around us automatically will see it, hear it, understand it quickly. Great teachers learn that this isn’t the case. And great shapers keep in mind all the time that the animal may not have a CLUE to what they themselves have so clearly in their heads.
Finally, with our pet, service, and performance dogs (i.e. dogs who live with us) it comes down to the trust account. It needs to be very high for some animals to enjoy shaping as much as we ourselves might. They have to trust us that the lack of a click, and a little extinction, is not the end of the world. I will admit to making mistakes about this. Shaping is so cool; it’s like being handed a shiny new toolbox with all sorts of fun things inside. I’m a pretty empathetic person but I will tell you that I have gotten overexcited about this tool and plowed on through signs of big frustration from my animals. I have recordings that I will probably never show anyone else of shaping sessions I did very early on with both Zani and Clara. They went on for several minutes. We got to our goal (MY goal). But neither dog was having fun after the first minute or so. They were showing stress and frustration. Zani was whining. Clara was spinning, which is her superstitious and stress related behavior. I was pressing on towards the goal insensitively.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the shaping process is usually reinforcing–to the human! Shaping is incredibly cool! We dangle it in front of trainers who are considering “crossing over.” Look what you’ll get to do with your dog! Many of us need to be careful about going overboard.
Just like any other activity, some dogs are going to intrinsically enjoy shaping more than others. But we are trainers, right? If using shaping is important to us, we need to find ways to make sure it is fun for the dog. A little stress may be a good thing in life, but if an animal is chronically averse to training activity we like, it’s time to do something about it. We probably need to gentle down the extinction process. And mind our trust accounts.
A few thoughts on how to do this:
- Watch the dog and get to know her signals.
- Pay attention to how long you are waiting if you are withholding the click. That’s when the extinction stress can build up.
- Start with very short sessions: just a few clicks.
- Be willing to stop before achieving a pre-ordained goal (This is a hard one! We tend to be so goal oriented.)
- Have an environmental cue that lets the animal know when you are shaping and when you aren’t.
- My friend Lynn says, Teach it! Think of it from the learner’s point of view.
- Lynn also says do little sessions of “shaping nonsense.” Make sure both you and the dog approach it as a game.
- Don’t do like I did with Zani and start shaping with a brand new rescue dog just because you can. I wish I had built up our trust a little better before doing that.
Here are my three submissions to ShapeFest 2012 a few months ago. I’m pleased with my dogs’ demeanor in all of these. Clara is still the most serious, but showed only a few little stress signs. Her main stress behaviors are a front paw raise (one tiny one at the beginning), and a counterclockwise spin. She does a couple of spins starting at 2:20 but it’s hard to tell how much is stress and how much is just a behavior she is trying. Since her pace is not frenetic, my guess it that they were mostly offered behaviors.
Shaping Zani to roll over
Shaping Summer to mount a platform, using playing in the hose as the reinforement
Shaping Clara to do a distant paw touch
I bet some of you out there have some other suggestions about making sure shaping is fun. Care to share?
Discussions coming up:
- Is It Really Just a Tap? (shock collar content)
- “Errorless learning”
- Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
Thanks for reading!