Free Shaping Dog Training – Successive Approximations Model

Free shaping is a type of dog training where behaviors are first broken down into smaller steps. Your dog is rewarded for successfully performing gradual steps using a marker, such as a clicker and rewards. Free shaping dog training relies on your dog’s problem-solving abilities to reach the desired behavior. This way your dog figures out the behavior himself. In free shaping dog training, your dog is allowed to figure out his behavior himself. This type of training is progressive and will rely on teaching small ‘steps’ that build up to the end behavior. Only when you have reached the desired end behavior will you start to add verbal cues or gestures.

Free shaping takes longer because your dog has to figure out what behavior is desired, however, it’s a great mental exercise.

Benefits of Free Shaping

Using the free shaping method can create a more reliable cue and a deeper understanding of what is expected. Your dog’s understanding of the training problems is limited to what you’ve told him. The behavior will have more staying power if you allow your dog to figure out what gets him rewarded.

In order to be successful with free shaping dog training, you will need to use a clicker, voice commands, or other reward markers to properly communicate to the dog what, exactly, he is doing correctly, and what behaviors do not pay off. If you already have a reward marker and know how to properly time a mark, this method is fantastic for teaching complex tricks or reliable obedience behaviors.

Getting Started With Free Shaping Dog Training

Free shaping dog training is a little different than other training methods; the main difference is you don’t encourage or interact with your dog to get him to start a behavior. Instead, he needs to choose to do it on his own. You may praise and reward him when he does what you want him to do. However, while he is ‘problem-solving’, you need to remain neutral.

One other consideration when using this method is your training needs to be progressive. Luring gets your dog to the objective quicker, but the behavior was not figured out. Picture what you want the end behavior to be, exactly, and have that be your goal.

Consider all the steps that will need to happen in order for your dog to reach that goal. Work with your dog by rewarding each progressive step until he eventually reaches the desired behavior. Only when your dog reaches the ‘goal’ will you start adding verbal cues.

Examples of Free Shaping Exercises

Here are a couple of examples to show you how you would train your dog using free shaping. We will present step-by-step examples of training sessions, or shaping sessions, to teach your dog some simple commands.

Example Exercise: Teaching Your Dog to ‘Leave It’

For this exercise, you need a clicker, a handful of stinky treats, and some of your dog’s favorite training treats. For this exercise, you will need your clicker, a handful of stinky treats, and a bag of your dog’s favorite training treats.

Dog learning to 'Leave it' in Free Shaping
Dachshund sniffed at a large rawhide bone on a white background. ‘Leave it’
  1. Start by sitting on the floor in a neutral position with the stinky treats in a closed fist. Rest your hand on your lap and ignore the dog. Your dog will likely mug your hand to get at the smelly treats.
  2. Open your hand with the smelly treats ever so slightly to entice your puppy to try and get them again. Close your hand when he tries to mug again and wait.
  3. Once he has chosen to sit or down, again, click and reward from your pouch.
  4. Continue this exercise, slowly opening your hand more and more until you can open your hand completely and your dog does not react. Click and treat for each successful step.
  5. Once your dog is reliable at ignoring the treats with your hand completely open, start waiting until he makes eye contact with you before you click and reward.

Congratulations! You have successfully taught a basic ‘leave it’ with free shaping! Start adding your desired verbal cue at this point.

Build upon this behavior by setting the food on the floor and adding distance. Eventually, you can work up to dropping food on the floor from a standing position.

This is a valuable skill for your dog to have to prevent accidental ingestion of harmful objects. It also provides you the ability to designate certain objects as off-limits.

Example Exercise: Teaching ‘Go to Bed’

For this exercise, you need your clicker, your dog’s favorite training treats, and your dog’s bed or mat.

Free Shping Training dog to go to bed
Dog in his crate after going to bed command
  1. Lay your dog’s mat or bed in the middle of the floor and stand a few feet away. Your dog will likely run up to investigate what you put on the floor. Click and reward for every basic interaction with the bed such as sniffing or standing on it.
  2. If your dog happens to sit or lay down on the mat or bed, IMMEDIATELY with no previous training or cues – Great Job! Give them 3-5 high-value treats! Toss the treats on the mat at first to reinforce that this object is more interesting than it appears.
  3. Increase your reward requirements once your dog has been rewarded 3 -5 times for sniffing on the mat or bed. Now, only click if your dog has at least one paw on the mat.
  4. Keep increasing your criteria as the dog starts to offer behaviors more reliably. After one foot, require 2, then all 4 feet. Remember not to reward if your dog sniffs the mat while not standing on it or not having the correct amount of feet on the mat.
  5. Once your dog is standing on the mat reliably, require him to sit on it. Do not cue or hint what he needs to do, just wait. When he sits or lays down for the first time, reward and praise him profusely!
  6. Once your dog is sitting or laying down on the mat and you are sure he has this command down, make them come to you to get the treat to reset the behavior. When they choose to go back to the mat to get more treats, that is when you can start adding the cue.

Congratulations! Now you have succeeded in teaching your dog to ‘go to bed’ with free shaping!

Final Thoughts

What is shape training a dog? Shaping is a process where you can gradually teach your dog a new behavior, or trick by rewarding her for each step she successfully makes toward achieving the final desired result. He is rewarded for each correct step he makes for each part of the process while learning that behavior. This breaks up the action into smaller parts that your dog can easily learn. This also sets her up for success and a lot of rewards. This allows you to break up a potentially complicated action into smaller parts that your dog will learn and understand more quickly.

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