Methods of “Getting Behavior”: Shaping

So far this week, we've learned about capturing and targeting techniques for manufacturing behaviors. Today, we'll talk about shaping. Did you ever play the "Hot/Cold"...

Last Updated on May 18, 2015 by

So far this week, we’ve learned about capturing and targeting techniques for manufacturing behaviors. Today, we’ll talk about shaping.

Did you ever play the “Hot/Cold” game when you were a child? Here is a very simple description of the game from the website “Boy Scout Trail.”

Essentially, in the “Hot/Cold” game, the “trainer” has a designated behavior or object in mind. The “trainee” moves around the training area, interacting with various items. The trainer tells the learner “hot” when the learner is getting closer to the goal behavior and “cold” when the learner gets farther away from the goal behavior or item.

Shaping is like the “Hot/Cold” game for dogs. Using a clicker or other marker, we build behavior in tiny increments, clicking and reinforcing “approximations” (steps in the right directions) until we achieve our goal. When playing the shaping game with dogs (and even with people, since we do this exercise in orientation at my classroom), the click means “hot” and no click means “cold.”

Here is a great video demonstrating the shaping process for teaching a dog to turn a light switch on or off.

Remember – not clicking gives as much information as clicking! Clicking means, “Yes, you did it right. I like that, do it more frequently!” (See why we use a clicker? It takes a long time to say all those things to our dogs!) Not clicking means, “That’s not it. Try something different.”

Before you begin any shaping exercises with your dog, make sure you review Karen Pryor’s 10 Laws of Shaping.

If I am shaping a dog to “go settle” on a mat, my shaping steps may look like this:

  • Click Mokie for looking at the mat.
  • Click Mokie for stepping toward the mat.
  • Click Mokie for one paw on the mat.
  • Click Mokie for two paws on the mat.
  • Click Mokie for four paws on the mat.
  • Click Mokie for duration on the mat.
  • Click Mokie for sitting on the mat.
  • Click Mokie for dipping her head.
  • Click Mokie for forward movement of front paws from sit position.
  • Click Mokie for lying down on the mat.

Depending on how clicker-savvy your dog is, you may need to break the behavior down into more or less steps. Your dog may even skip a few steps in the shaping plan!

When training the “go to mat” exercise, I like to split the training plan into two steps:

1. Getting the dog to go to the mat reliably.

2. Getting the dog to lie down on the mat.

While I’m getting Mokie to go to the mat reliably, I will be clicking and tossing my treat away from the mat to set Mokie up for another repetition. In this stage, it is often helpful to toss the treat on the opposite side of the mat from where you are – frequently a dog will retrieve her treat and then move back toward the handler, which automatically sets the team up for another repetition. I also like to practice tossing the treat away from the mat and then altering my position relative to the mat when the dog goes to retrieve – I don’t want my body position relative to the mat to become a part of the cue. (“Only go to the mat when mom stands on the left of it!” syndrome.)

Once the “go to mat” behavior is reliable (Mokie eats her treat, immediately returning to the mat), I shift strategy gears – now I will begin Mokie for staying on the mat. Once she is reliably offering the down on the mat, I resume tossing my treat off the mat and now wait for her to approach the mat and then lie down, clicking the down movement and tossing my treat off the mat to reset her for another repetition.

When Mokie is retrieving her treat, and immediately returning to lie down on the mat 8 out of 10 repetitions, we can begin adding a cue. Remember, first we add the cue as the dog is doing the desired behavior. Once that is reliable, we begin cueing the behavior slightly earlier, “backing it up” in the sequence. Once we have added a cue, it is time to begin proofing the behavior for relevant aspects of fluency.


  • Shaping allows us to teach very complex behaviors the dog would never offer on her own.
  • Shaping builds observation, timing, and reinforcement skills in the handler. (It will make you a better trainer!)
  • Shaping helps handlers develop effective criteria setting.
  • Shaping builds confidence in dogs.
  • Shaping is great mental stimulation for dogs – often, a five minute shaping session tires a dog’s brain as much as a forty-five minute walk tires her body.
  • Shaping encourages creativity from both parties in the training equation – the handler and her dog.
  • Shaping-savvy dog/handler teams can train very complex behaviors quickly and efficiently.


  • Shaping is a mechanical skill for humans and is only learned through practice.
  • Shaping is a foundation learning skill for dogs – it may take a “green” dog a while to become “shaping savvy.”
  • It can be hard to shape new behaviors with dogs that have traumatic histories and have learned, through punishment, to avoid offering new behaviors. This is frequently seen in puppy mill dogs or dogs who are accustomed to abuse.


The Shape of Bow Wow is a fantastic video explaining the process and how you may use a clicker to shape a number of behaviors. It’s a great buy if you are a visual learner and prefer to see the process before you begin trying it at home with your dog.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the 4th method of getting behaviors – luring!

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