Higher Level “Shaping” Through Positive Reinforcement (No, it’s not a secret weight loss technique!)

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Ever watch a certified service dog in action, and envy their well-developed technique? It’s nice to daydream about your own pooch mastering these moves, but know it doesn’t happen by chance.  Service groups around the world spend many thousands of dollars, and hundreds of man-hours, perfecting technique and working up a skill set large and effective enough to ensure that these canines can pass their extremely difficult final exam.  Sometimes all this work pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t. Just as not all humans are cut out to be brain surgeons, not all canines can meet the rigorous criteria that will allow them to work with a disabled companion.   As we look on at these service teams in awe of their abilities, it can be discouraging to consider that this level might only be attained by “the best of the best.” I’m here to attest to the fact, however, that you and your dog can achieve this higher-level relationship, and I’ll explain more below!

Our canines all have amazing skill sets that can successfully contribute to the family “pack,” and have a positive impact within our communities.  I’ve discussed a number of Canines By Design concepts already that help you get to the finish line: T.A.P. For Success, Set Up For Success, and Proofing: What is it and how to do it. These concepts focus on preparation, frequency, and environmental interactions, but what about the actual training itself?

I would like to introduce two terms for your training considerations: shaping and chaining (specifically forward chaining). Both terms have been accredited to B.F. Skinner and his work in behavioural psychology. I’ll also provide some examples showing just how valuable these skills are at teaching canines – did you know we already use teaching techniques with children much in the same fashion?

Inquisitive German Shepherd

It’s as simple as A-B-C…

Shaping is defined as a conditioning procedure, which uses “differential reinforcement of successive approximations” (thefreedictionary.com, 2014).

Translation? We always have a particular end-point (goal) in teaching that we wish to reach.  For example, when we teach the alphabet to children, our end goal is to have them learn and recite all the letters of the alphabet.  However, we don’t expect a child to learn all the letters on the first attempt, nor do we expect them to recite in proper order.  So what do we do?  We start with A, then B, then C…  We offer testing periods along the way to help solidify the steps taken to that point, and then continue with new steps (or letters in this case) once the previous steps have been mastered and reinforced with praise and the positive feelings we all get when we succeed.

Easily enough, the same applies for canines! When I’m training a service dog to turn on a light switch, I do not expect them to walk up, place their paws perfectly, use their nose to flick the switch up, and their teeth to lightly pull the switch down, in the first five minutes.  Nor do I expect a young puppy integrate “lay down” and “roll over” at first go.  I break the task down into manageable, achievable steps (A separate from B) so that the canine can succeed and receive that praise (positive reinforcement) at each step.  Once those steps are perfected, we continue to add further steps (A + B + C) until the canine is completing the task from start to finish.

Chaining is the form of learning in which the “subject is required to make a series of responses in a definite order” in which each response, when sequenced together, forms a complex behaviour.

Let’s return to our alphabet example:  When we teach children the alphabet, there are two important aspects we focus on: one is the letters themselves, and the second is the order in which they exist in our alphabet.  We try to set ourselves (the teachers) and our children (pupils) up for success so we have created an alphabet song that shapes the behaviour of knowing the alphabet by forward chaining each letter together in their assigned order using a melody.  By doing so, we can not only teach them the letters, but also the order.  Could you imagine trying to teach your child the alphabet order by first saying “D comes after C but is before E”?  Behaviours are hard enough to learn without becoming frustrated or struggling with complicated instructions.

For canines, it is the same.  If our end-goal is to have our canine recycle pop bottles into a garbage can, we must first take that particular behaviour, break it down into learnable pieces:

  1. Recognize the bottles
  2. Pick them up
  3. Carry them
  4. Move them over the garbage can
  5. Drop the bottle in the can
  6. Slowly combine each step [successive approximations]
  7. Learn that each step is a part of one behaviour and therefore one command “go recycle”).

I developed the “ go recycle” command for a behavioural course project as part of my Master’s Program.  Check out my course video (sorry for the quality, it was “home” recorded)  – it visually explains the concepts of shaping and chaining without actually using the terms.

At Canines By Design, I take my academic education in psychology, canine behaviour and animal biology, and apply terms, research, and teaching methods to your relationship with your canine. This knowledge should not only be reserved for service dogs. Using positive reinforcement techniques, shaping, and chaining will help open up the doors of possibility and will have you thinking up cool news ways that your canine can contribute to your household and community.

TheFreeDictionary.com . (2014). Shaping Definition.  Retrieved from:  http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Shaping+(psychology).  Accessed on: June 18, 2014.

Britannica.com (2014).  Chaining Definition.  Retrieved from: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/334034/learning-theory. Accessed on: June 18th, 2014.

 

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