Head of the Class Dog Training LLC 

Winchester, VA

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“Shaping” Up Your Pup

Did you think we were going to talk about doggie fitness? Maybe in another post we will, but today, we are going to talk about shaping, one of our favorite approaches to dog training.

Shaping is a fun technique that uses positive reinforcement to mold your dog’s behaviors. Shaping is also known as “shaping by successive approximations,” which, in plainer English, means that you break down into small steps any behavior you want your dog to learn. You reinforce each incremental step with a treat and a clicker or marker word until your dog learns to complete the full behavior. Shaping is a great technique that we like to use alongside other training methods for a well-rounded training experience.

Shaping is great for helping your dog learn a behavior that he or she finds either physically or mentally difficult, like sitting quietly as another dog approaches. Shaping can also be used to fine-tune behaviors your dog already practices. For example, your dog may already know how to “speak,” but you could take the behavior to the next step and teach him or her speak quietly. Shaping can be used to help your dog try new things and learn problem solving skills.

Teach Basic Behaviors Your Dog Is Reluctant Learn

If your dog finds something mentally or physically challenging, he or she may not demonstrate the behavior you want. If you have a dog who is a reluctant sitter, for example, you can use shaping to help him or her learn to sit on on cue. You can use a lure to shape the behavior by holding a treat at the tip of your dog’s nose and lifting it up slightly. When your dog follows the treat, click and reward. After a few repetitions, remove the treat and use an empty hand. Click and treat, making sure the treat comes out after the dog has sat. After a few repetitions like this, you can add the word SIT before you move your hand.

Use Shaping to Perfect a Behavior

If your dog already regularly demonstrates a behavior, like lying down, but you want to fine tune that behavior, you could use a shaping exercise. Perhaps you want your dog to lie down quickly. Remember, shaping works with repetition of the behavior. You reward the repetitions that reinforce your end goal — in this case lying down quickly. You could use a stopwatch to time your dog’s average lying down time and as the action is repeated, click your clicker and reward the faster lying down. As you continue with the exercise and only click and reward lying down faster, your dog will begin to catch on to the behavior. If you want to fine tune it even further, you could begin by clicking and rewarding for a 3 second lying down, then 2 second lying down and finally, 1 second lying down.

Body Parts Exercise

This exercise can teach your dog creative problem solving while he or she learns to practice a behavior. Sit down with your dog facing you and watch your dog for any small movement he or she may make. This movement could be a turn of the head, flicker of the tongue, lifting a paw off the ground — any movement you want to reinforce. When you find the movement you want to reinforce, click your clicker and offer your pup a reward. Continue waiting for your dog to repeat that movement and click and treat each time. You are reinforcing an accidental behavior until your dog begins deliberately displaying it. Once you reach that point, you can name the behavior and incorporate it into a trick.

As you can see, like any other form of dog training, shaping requires time and patience, as well as a certain amount of practice on your part. We can help. Contact Head of the Class Dog Training today to discuss your dog’s behaviors and how you would like to shape them.

Lisa Marino, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, PMCT, has taken her varied teaching experiences and applied them to helping owners understand and train their beloved four-legged family members. She has more than four years’ experience leading group dog training classes at Best Paw Forward in Hartland, WI, and opened Head of the Class Dog Training LLC in Winchester, VA in 2012, where she conducts group classes and private lessons, as well as helps owners to modify their dogs' problem behaviors.


Lisa earned her CPDT-KA in 2012, is a 2015 graduate of the prestigious Karen Pryor Academy and is a Pat Miller Certified Trainer.

She has 4 registered therapy dogs and is a Pet Partner Therapy Team Evaluator and a member of HOPE AACR. As a former middle school teacher, she works well with families and children  and does school presentations on various dog related topics.