When we say we've trained our dogs to do something, what we've really done is shape a behavior.
But most often, our idea of training is basic — I ask the dog to do something, the dog does it, I give the dog a reward — and misses some crucial steps along the way.
Sit is a great example of how we get started down this path of "missing something" in our efforts to "train" our dogs.
We almost instinctively take the treat in our hand and put it over our dog's head when asking him to sit. In an effort to keep his eyes on that treat, the dog will sit down so he can lift his head more vertically to do so. And voila! You've got a sitting a dog.
So you're led to believe there's little more to it than that. You don't really think about how the placement of your hand may have prompted the behavior and the fact that your dog is not immediately associating the verbal command with the action of sitting.
You just kinda assume that dog training really can be that easy.
But, how would you, say, train a dog to do something more complex, like roll over?
If your answer is to keep asking your dog to roll over until he just does it, good luck.
More likely, you'll start by asking your dog to do something he already knows how to do, like lie down. Good first step.
Now, do you reward him for that? Do you wave the treat around hoping he'll flop his body over? Do you get down on the floor and start flopping around yourself in hopes he'll learn by observation?
You can roll over all you want, but chances are, your dog will just look at you like you're slightly odd today.
Any training begins with shaping, whether you realize it or not. The more complex a task you're trying to teach a dog, the more shaping you're going to have to do.
When trying to teach a roll over, you do want to begin with "lie down" considering your dog knows that command. Go ahead and reward him.
Now, you start rewarding for any little movements that are in the direction of a roll-over. Maybe he shifts his weight so he's lying more on one side than another — good, reward it. It's a step in the right direction.
And that's what shaping is all about, rewarding steps in the right direction and then rewarding steps that are better than the rest.
Here's how Jean Donaldson, author of Culture Clash, put it: "Shaping is technique which involves rewarding the dog's best efforts and then gradually raising the standard until the behavior is as you wish."
The most common mistake made during shaping, she says, is that the standard for a reward is set too high and behaviors that are on the right track are ignored.
With our roll-over example, then, perhaps you missed that first step in the right direction — rewarding the dog when he shifted his body to one side while laying down.