Today I went to my local shelter to spend some time with Maxine – a Mastiff/ Shepherd cross that is just over a year old. Maxine has spent about 2 months at the shelter and is getting bored and frustrated. I heard she likes to learn, so off I went with clicker, treat pouch, mat and box in hand.
Where To Start?
First, I introduced Maxine to the clicker – a unique sound that marks when she has done something I like, and I’m going to pay her for it (with a small treat). Thus, the clicker is conditioned. It gives me a couple of advantages – a timing advantage as I can mark exactly the behavior I like the nanosecond it occurs, and it’s a unique sound in the environment – it’s novel, it doesn’t sound like any words or other noises, and I’ve conditioned it as a good thing.
It’s time to teach Maxine something via shaping. Shaping is for the thinking dog – I’m not offering any cues or lures, I’m just clicking behaviors that I like that Maxine does. We started with her walking towards me, her sitting, and then we progressed to hand targeting.
Shaping a “touch” – touch a nose to a hand – is pretty easy. I am pretty sure my hands smell like meat… permanently. I stick my hand out near Maxine’s nose, she sniffs and gently touches my hand, and Click! I reach into my treat pouch and deliver the goodie. I stick my hand out again, Maxine touches with her nose, and Click! (or in Maxine’s mind – “cha-ching” pay cheque coming my way). She’s learning a way to interact with people and hands in a positive manner. From here, we generalized Maxine’s touch by moving my hand around and changing the position of my hand (that can be a tricky one for some dogs!).
Go To Your Spot
Maxine and I next moved onto targeting a mat with her feet and shaping her to sit and stay. First, I clicked and treated for anytime her feet touch the mat – front foot, back foot, half a foot – my criteria was pretty low as I wanted to cook up a lot of mat action. Initially, I fed her the treat on the mat, but after awhile, I tossed it away from the mat so that it was clear to Maxine that she had to return to the mat and touch it with her feet in order to get me to make that magic noise. We worked up to sitting with a foot or two (or even her bum) on the mat and then having me take a step and return to her without her moving.
Hopefully this foray into shaping will help Maxine think about how she can interact with her environment in appropriate & desirable ways. Shaping can also help dogs learn to deal with frustration – as I raise my criteria (standards) for the dog to earn a click/ treat, the dog often feels some frustration in trying to figure out what I want. It’s just a little frustration, but it’s a start.
If you are interested in meeting Maxine or any of the dogs at WAG (the animal shelter in Whistler), you can contact them at (604)935-8364 or via the website www.whistlerwag.com. WAG dogs make the best dogs – I’ve got two of ’em!