Shaping Behaviors in Dogs with Clicker Training

Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog
Agency Animal Picture / Getty Images

Clicker training is a great way to train your dog. Once you have learned the basics of clicker training, you can begin to capture behaviors with the clicker. In addition, you can learn how to shape behaviors while clicker training your dog.

What is Shaping

Shaping a behavior means training a dog to do something in small stages rather than all at once. You teach the dog to perform a new behavior by breaking it down into smaller parts.

Why Use Shaping

You probably don't need to use shaping for simple behaviors, such as training a dog to sit. It comes in handy for more complicated behaviors because it allows you to teach your dog a little at a time. For example, your dog may not understand what you're asking him to do when you give the command ​"roll over." You can try to lure him with treats, but it may still be tough to communicate exactly what you want him to do. Shaping allows you to break more complicated behaviors into smaller pieces to more effectively communicate with your dog.

How to Shape Behaviors

Clicker training is an easy way to shape new behaviors. You'll need a clicker and a handful of treats to get started. We'll stick with the example of the "roll over" command to show how to use this technique when training a dog. Here's how to do it:

  1. Start with your dog in the lying down position.
  2. Give the command "roll over."
  3. Hold a treat at the dog's nose, and pull it around so he'll have to turn his head to get it. Click your clicker and give a treat.
  4. Practice this a few times, and then click and treat only those times when your dog turns his head and leans onto his side a little bit.
  5. Once your dog is turning onto his side a little bit, begin using the treat to lure him onto his side completely. When he's doing this reliably, click and treat only those times when he makes it onto his side.
  6. Next, use a treat to lure him to roll, and begin to click and treat only when he begins going over.
  7. Continue to slowly build on each behavior, and then choose the best behaviors that get him the closest to a complete roll until the dog is rolling all the way over.
  8. If your dog stops moving ahead, go back a step or so and start again from there.
  9. Once your dog has rolled over completely several times, click and treat only when he rolls all the way over. He should soon be able to roll over on command without needing to repeat the steps in between.

    In this way, you can shape any behavior. If during training, you find your dog is having a hard time figuring out what you're asking him to do, simply break it into smaller parts and shape the behavior you want. In this way, you can train a dog to do virtually anything, from the simplest command to the most complicated trick.