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Shaping in Dogs: Introduction

June 20, 2017

Most of us have learned to train our dogs using “luring,” or using a reward to lead a dog into a specific position (for example, moving a treat up over your dog’s nose until they naturally sit). Luring is a very effective technique, but I’d like to introduce another training technique called shaping.

In its purest form, teaching a new task with shaping involves no direction at all. You are still marking and rewarding behaviors, but the skill is broken down into many small steps that are subsequently marked and rewarded. At first, you are waiting for the dog to “accidentally” perform the desired behaviors; as they catch on they will become more deliberate.  As they become used to the technique, they will be quicker to offer more behaviors in a session. Each step builds upon the next. A good explanation of shaping can be found here.

Why would you want to use shaping instead of luring? Shaping can:

  1. Teach a dog to “learn how to learn.” Luring is effective but directive; we show the dog what to do. With shaping, dogs need to think and problem solve, and they have more choice and can work at their own pace. This makes future training easier and confident, “thinking” dogs freely offer behaviors and interact with things in their environment. This can be helpful in unexpected ways. For example, one of my dogs sustained an injury that required some physical rehabilitation exercises. It was quick and easy to shape his home exercises using props he’d never seen.

    Squash pauses for a stretch on a hike. This exercise was originally shaped and is now on cue.


  2. Put less social pressure on a dog and build confidence. A shy or fearful dog may find traditional luring intimidating, even when 100% reward based methods are used. With shaping, a dog is in control of choosing which behaviors to offer in order to earn a click/treat, so they are “driving the bus.” This control can help many dogs build confidence.  (Note: A very small number of dogs who are used to more directive training may actually become stressed by shaping because they don’t know what to do and are confused. As always, be aware of your dog’s individual needs.)

    Squash, a pro shaper, is comfortable interacting with objects in his environment. He has not been taught specifically to get on a chair, but is confident and used to offering all sorts of behaviors.


  3. Help teach behaviors that may be scary or otherwise difficult to teach without negative associations. For example, training to wear a muzzle, go into a crate, get on fitness equipment, or get into the bathtub are all skills I have shaped with my dogs. Shaping is commonly used in zoos to train birds and other animals to get into carriers for transport. In a future blog post, I will post video of shaping a dog to wear a muzzle, a very important skill.

    Pip was shy of this exercise peanut using luring. Shaping was successful because he could choose to do it or not without pressure and at his own pace. This exercise is good for balance, strength, and posture.


  4. Teach more complex tricks or behaviors. Have you ever seen a dog in a commercial or otherwise performing fancy tricks? Many of those dogs were trained using shaping.
  5. It’s fun, and helps build the bond between you and your dog.


This video is a compilation of Rooney being introduced to shaping. The end goal is to get completely in the box. The entire training session was about 10 minutes long. (This is much longer than I would normally train, but I had limited time with Rooney.)

He is initially uncertain what to do and spends a lot of time looking at me. Notice that I “cheat” a little by leaning towards the box, stepping to the other side of it, or gesturing with my hands to help him. Reward placement is also important; placing the treats near or in the box further reinforces its importance.

During subsequent sessions, it should take less and less time for Rooney to move through the steps and end up in the box.

As a dog learns how to shape, “cheats” can be eliminated. This video is my dog Pip, who is very familiar with shaping. I don’t give him any help and hold out for more advanced steps right off the bat before I mark/reward (foot in the box).



Some challenges that can come along with shaping:

  1. Lumping vs splitting: The biggest mistake people (including myself!) usually make is not breaking down a behavior into small enough pieces, especially for dogs who are new to the technique. In Rooney’s video, a few times I marked simply for looking away from me, because that is the first step towards interacting with the box. It is very easy to lump several steps together into one and get frustrated.
  2. Too much, too soon. As I said above, I would not normally train for 10 minutes at a time. Keep sessions short, 2-3 minutes at a time, although you can do several sessions in one day. Many dogs benefit from either play or naps between training sessions.
  3. A dog who is used to directive training. As discussed above the video, it is ok to “cheat” a little for dogs who don’t know what to do.
  4. Don’t name it ’til you love it. Don’t try to add a cue (verbal or hand signal command) to the trick until your dog is offering it deliberately. Just mark and treat what you want to see. If I absolutely MUST say something before that point, I say “what can you do?” or “think hard!” which satisfies my need to “help” (and have evolved into cues for my own dogs to offer something different than they are currently offering).


You might ask yourself why you would want your dog to get in a box. The box exercise is just a simple way to introduce you and your dog to shaping. With experience, you and your dog will get better at it and find more useful skills to apply it to. Two of my favorite “life skills” to shape with dogs are settling in a crate and wearing a muzzle.


Squash relaxing in his crate, where he is very comfortable, in a hotel while traveling.


In a future post, I will have video of shaping a dog to wear a muzzle. Until then, go get a box and have some fun with your dog!


-Karen Christopherson DVM CVA

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