To me, having a puppy at home is always an opportunity to learn, to do better, to explore a new world. When Denali, my German Shepherd puppy, arrived I decided to set up a program to develop his physical skills. Therefore, with treats in my hand and a vague idea of what to do, we started practicing different movements.
Our experience shapes our mindset, so I found myself inducing movements that I am more familiar with, like making the dog turn on itself, change from down to stand, pivot, steps back. I added a recent experience with some tools used for body balance. I used a treat to attract Denali on a plastic pillow. Denali liked this so much, that after 5-6 sessions he started by himself to climb on the pillow with his front legs. Targets always have this effect!
It was interesting to see Denali start proposing some behaviors previously led with food, moving from a pure muscle action to the awareness that that behavior works to get something pleasing. I would have expected that Denali needed more experience, and from my part that I needed to introduce some procedures of operating conditioning. Instead, he did it all by himself.
GIVEN HIS PROGRESS, ONE EVENING I TRIED TAKING MY CLICKER, SOME FOOD, I PUT THE PILLOW ON THE FLOOR, AND INSTEAD OF INDUCING MOVEMENTS, I WAITED.
At first, Denali tried to take the food, then to sit down, and finally he got on the pillow. Click and a treat! We repeat this exercise a few times, and then I stopped the session. The next day I tried to go one step further. The behavior was still the same, to get on the pillow with his front legs, but now the object was different. I used a slightly smaller and lower, but clearly visible, plastic disk. Denali got some clicks when approaching the disk with his muzzle, but he did not understand, and he sat down. Then he tried again, and again he gave up.
He lied down next to me. I talked to him and petted him, thinking, "maybe it's really too early." Denali got up and tried again. I finished the first learning session when he intentionally put his left paw on the disk.
THIS IS MY WORKING STYLE WHEN IT COMES TO LEARNING: IF A DOG QUITS, I DON'T DO ANYTHING TO MAKE HIM START OVER.
I let the dog feel his emotions, express himself freely, without interfering, except from giving him good information, a positive attitude and trusting him. We continue the session with other behaviors, induced in stimulus, and before closing, I take the disk. Denali is much more confident, and scratches on the disk with his paw: "give me food!". I let Brick and Puma out and we went for a long walk. We came back; I trained with Puma in Obedience, and when I was ready to go home, Denali showed the typical expression: “I am hungry". Therefore, I took the disk, and Denali exhibited a firm and secure contact with his paw on the disk. We did very few repetitions and we stopped. In the last session I did not speak, because Denali did not need social and emotional support: he is calm, motivated and confident. In this situation, being silent means giving the dog more autonomy, not leaving him alone. I am always there with him and for him.
This is not a real shaping session. From a motor and mental point of view, his behavior, putting his paws on the pillow/on the disk, had already been acquired. Before the session with the clicker, Denali already knew this behavior. The only difficulty was that he had to choose between food and behavior.
THIS SESSION IS USEFUL FOR IMPROVING THE DOG’S COMMUNICATION SKILLS, AS WELL AS THE DOG’S MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL SKILLS.
Attention: puppies are in reality like sponges. They learn everything, but they only have little emotional and social barriers. For this reason, learning sessions must be done with great sensitivity, must protect the welfare of the puppy, and not only nurture our own expectations.
Do not try to shape a puppy (or even an adult dog), if you don't know exactly what you're doing. This is not a game.
Text and video Alexa Capra
Photos Daniele Robotti
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