Shaping

with Laura Vanarendonk Baugh

We have our list of ways to create (inspire) behavior to happen, which we then mark and reinforce to encourage it to happen more and ultimately put it on cue and stimulus control. We have shaping, luring/targeting, capturing, modeling, molding, and the use of antecedent arrangement – much of this is discussed briefly in the “Creating Behavior” file. I have found with myself and my animals Shaping is something I way under utilize! I usually shape standing calmly facing forward then I teach targeting – from here I use the target to teach just about everything! The target is a great tool and I love it, it's quick, easy and gets large lumps of behavior in one. So long as you are good about taking behaviors off target and on cue at a comfortable time the target remains a great tool. I can go on for hours the benefits of this, but the disadvantage of the target is that it lumps the behavior. So when we want to shape a small behavior or a very precise behavior we have less information to give them. For me, shaping is a seriously underutilized tool. I was ok with this because I'm not the sort to want precision, but when I watched animals shaping behaviors I realized the other piece I was missing – the engagement, the communication back and forth, the thinking and problem solving. Shaping is FUN for the learner (when done right). Shaping created a clean back and forth – it was so fun to watch in the various species we saw, this is a back and forth I haven't experiences with my horses as obviously as completely as this, so I've decided this is something I want to get better at and work with more!

Ok so let's discuss what shaping is and how to do it effectively. Shaping is clicking for approximations toward the goal behavior. “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” - Confucius

Shaping is a simple concept but difficult execution. It requires crisp and clear timing and communication and perfect observational skills. It can be difficult to learn well and lots of work and practice to become fluent in. Practicing with another human can help you so you can talk about where things became unclear and learn from each other. Be patient with yourself. It can also take time for our learners to understand and get comfortable with shaping. Especially horses who may have experienced punishment and aversives. These horses have a reduced try and more anxiety when trying is required of them. It's vital we take things slow and careful with them, build their resilience and confidence in their try. Allow them to make mistakes and encourage them to carry on (with your click!) never push for too much criteria, don't allow them to be wrong too many times in a row or confusion/frustration will set in. If you're not being successful end your session and regroup your antecedents.

Shaping works like a funnel, at first we'll be accepting all offered behaviors, then a behavior group (anything that has any component of the goal behavior), gradually tightening up our criteria until we have the refined and crisp behavior we are aiming for. “A complex behavior is broken down into a series of simple components. These are gradually combined or refined to create the desired complex behavior” - Laura Baugh. For example let's say our goal behavior is standing on a mat. At first we will take any acknowledgment that the mat is there. Then we'll tighten up and look for anything that that interacts with the mat, sniffing, touching, pawing, nudging, focusing on. From here we'll tighten up and only take things that involve the hoof and the mat, pawing, touching, stepping onto by accident. At this point we'll want crisp timing, hoof touching mat – not coming off mat during a paw. Refine some more wanting two front hooves landing on the mat. Refined a bit more, two front hooves on mat and not coming up off the mat. Build duration and put on cue and you got yourself a great mat behavior!

Some aspects to pay attention to during shaping, these are things we should refer back to if anything goes wrong in our shaping process. The things your learner needs to know to understand shaping successfully are what the bridge signal is, what the bridge signal means (delivery of primary reinforcer), trusts the bridge signal to always mean the same thing, and understands that their behavior causes the bridge signal (or not). The things we need to know (and use effectively), ensure our bridge signal is clear and consistent, we are observant enough to see the behavior a moment before it happens, we provide accurate and complete feedback (with our click or not), and use our reinforcement (and delivery) to set the learner up for success.

Let's talk about our observational skills. This is the most vital skill for us when shaping behavior. We need to know our species and our individual. Know what behavior we're looking for and when our learning is most likely to approach that behavior. Knowing our individual is vital to being able to set them and our antecedents up for success. For example, if your horse paws all the time and you've been working to reduce this when working on mat behavior you may need to adjust your delivery and timing to reduce the likelihood of them pawing the mat and getting stuck on that. Knowing our individual can really help us with our timing as well. Often our timing with our click is late or foggy simply because we lack the observational awareness to be able to click at the right time. If we click when the behavior happens it might be too late, the millisecond it takes for our click to happen and the soundwave to reach and register in our horses' ears may be too late! It's not about speed of your reflexes, but rather clicking the commitment, click a moment before the behavior you're shaping. Watch the muscles, click a muscle contraction in the right direction or a shift of weight toward your goal. Practice your ability to see the behavior before it happens, so you can click accurately, watch for those pre-cursors. Clicking late is worse than missing a click. If you miss a behavior, it happened you reallllly want to reinforce it, it's better to just feed without a bridge (this will be vague information) – as Laura sad, bad information is worse than vague information. However do not make a habit of this, too many rewards without a bridge signal and the animal will find a new bridge signal that's more clear (your hand going to your treat pouch?)

Set your learner up for success not just with the antecedents but also with your reinforcement! If you're working on the mat behavior we've been using as an example, we can click and feed for position a few times in a row then click and feed them off the mat – so they can repeat the behavior of going onto the mat. You can use your reinforcement to change the situation, to add energy or relaxation to the behavior. Coming to the food add energy, the food going to their mouth promotes relaxation and so on. Pay attention to your reinforcement size and value and delivery. Ensure clean and precise delivery, spilling food everywhere means waiting minutes for the learner to clean up and adds this foraging behavior to the next rep. Using play or mutual grooming as alternative or additional reinforcers can also influence the situation. I recommend not avoiding the food with horses, use play or grooming as an additional reinforcer not an alternative in most cases. I find if I'm working on soft, slow behaviors, duration and so on, if I stop and massage/groom a pleasurable spot after the click and before the next rep of behavior it helps promote that soft, calm I'm looking for in the behavior I'm shaping. While if I'm working on energy and enthusiasm adding some play and exuberant praise to your food reward can be beneficial. Be careful to keep your additional reinforcers out of your next rep though, reinforce then stop and allow them to do their next rep.

You want your repetitions to be clean and progressive. We want to ensure our lessons are progressing at a speed right for the learner. You're ready for the next step in the behavior when it's occurring already. This means during your repetitions of the behavior the behavior isn't exactly the same each time. If you see your next step happening it's ready to start being reinforced. If it's not happening predictably it's not ready to be reinforced. Make sure to not to get stuck behind on a behavior that isn't moving toward your goal. You also don't want to rush and try to lump too much, causing confusion and having to go back and forth up your scale.

This is a surprisingly huge topic – we often say “it's easy to understand difficult to do”. It takes practice, observational skills and understanding of your species and individual, how your reinforcer and reinforcement delivery influence the behavior and how to arrange the antecedents to best move toward your goal. This is a lot to become fluent in but practice makes perfect! Good luck and feel free to ask questions!

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