How to Use Shaping to Teach Your Dog New Behaviors
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

Okay friends, are you ready to take your marker training to the next level? Shaping will give you the tools to teach essentially any behavior your dog is physically capable of performing. Say what?


Shaping is training by marking and reinforcing successive approximations until you reach your goal behavior. It’s kind of like playing “hotter/colder” with your dog. You have a picture in your head of what the “goal behavior” looks like. By marking behaviors that get closer and closer to that goal, you eventually reach your end behavior. 


We talked about this in the Stationing series. If we want to teach our dog to walk over to his mat and lay down on it, we can start by marking the moment the dog looks at the mat, then the moment he moves towards it, then touches it, then puts a paw on it, then two paws, four paws, sits on it, and finally lays down. Viola! It’s not always that smooth, of course, but that’s the general idea. 


Aside from being an incredibly handy tool, shaping is an insane brain workout. Dogs that have not been shaped before may struggle initially - many dogs get used to being told exactly what to do, whereas with shaping they have to get creative and try new things! For this reason, it’s a good idea to keep your sessions really short. If your dog gets stumped, end the session with something fun like a game of tug or a treat toss, and then think about how you can set up the session to help them succeed. The way you position your body, the way you deliver your treats, the way the room is set up - all these things will influence your dog’s behavior. 


Here are some ideas of what you could use shaping to teach (although again, it's pretty much anything):


  • Paw targets (teach them to put front or back paw on a specific object or two put both front paws on something like a box)
  • Get in a box
  • Pick up a box (or any other object)
  • Push a box or ball with their nose
  • Back up
  • Play dead
  • Roll over
  • Carry an object
  • Close cupboards or doors (nose or paw)
  • File their nails or wipe their feet
  • And much much more!


I'd love to see you give it a shot! Tag me @pathandpaw on Instagram with your training videos or questions!


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