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The Mystery of Free Shaping Unraveled

This dog is offering one of the first behaviors typically offered by dogs when free shaping - putting his paw on top of the object. It is the precursor to another popular free shaping behavior - standing on top of the object.

Free shaping with my dogs is literally my favorite part of the day. There is nothing better than unwinding by grabbing a clicker and some treats and having some good old fashioned fun. It’s so much fun that it doesn’t even remotely resemble learning when you watch it unfold. Which is, of course, why people don’t seem to get it.

You can utilize any object you can find to free shape, here, they are using a scratching post. We have used anything from boxes to remote controlled cars, to backhoes, to shopping carts. Anything can initiate the game once it's learned!

I’ll be the first to admit that when my trainer recommended free shaping for Smokey, I was a little confused. When I Googled it and watched a few videos on YouTube, I was even more confused, along with extremely skeptical. “Free shaping teaches your dog to think creatively,” websites boasted and trainers touted. I raised an eyebrow and stuck up my nose. First of all, how was all this random clicking and getting up onto chairs and running around boxes going to teach my dog anything? Second, even if it did work, what did I want with a creatively thinking dog? To me, creatively thinking dog meant any number of horrible things, anywhere from getting up on counters and knocking over trashcans to jumping through windows and setting fire to the house. Uh uh, count me out; I’d like to have a place to live come 6:00 p.m. thank you very much!

My house has looked similar to this more than once. This is what I assumed it would look like when I first heard about free shaping. Actually, it turned out to be quite the opposite.

As I evolved and my training crossover continued, and my eyes began to open, I started to see what I was missing in my original dismissal of free shaping.

For one, those clicks that I saw as “random” actually weren’t random at all. They were very carefully timed and placed clicks to reward an interaction between the dog and the object. Glance at the object, click, raise a paw toward the object, click, take a step toward the object, click, lick the object, click. All of the clicks were leading the dog toward creating his own interactions with the object. The clicks were conveying information to the dog that “Yes, this is right, I want you to do stuff with the box (or the chair or the cookie sheet or the flower pot, etc.)”

For another, I started to see how free shaping could actually really help Smokey. Free shaping is a great way to get a dog to interact with objects of fear without coercion, duress, additional stress or physical punishment. It’s a way to allow your dog to have fun with the object that used to scare them. As soon as the dog associates the object with free shaping, it is no longer an object of terror, but instead, another source of clicks and rewards. What a great concept.

Before we had free shaping, we used a lot of physical correction. Smokey, coming from a puppy mill, had a lot of fear. These two things did not go well together.

So when we turned on the vacuum, for example, Smokey would head for the hills. He would dart up the steps, tuck himself into a corner and hide from the source of the noise. We would go up the steps, choke chain and short lead in hand, put the chain around his neck and drag him down the steps. When we got there, we would force him to stay within inches of the vacuum and every time he barked, cried, or tried to run away, we would collar pop him.

Needless to say, this method was not effective.

Yikes mom!!! Get that out of here!

Taking him to another room until he “calmed down” was not effective either, as he spent most of the time trying to run further away, and he never calmed down.

It wasn’t just this fear of the vacuum that ruled Smokey’s life either. It was the vacuum, the steam cleaner, the table saw, the radio, the TV, sometimes even the ring of a cell phone. He went from a dog that seemed unfazed by anything to a dog that jumped at every clang or ding, whether it was outside or inside. And the barking! He barked at absolutely everything. A vicious sort of bark too, with his hackles raised while he paced back and forth whining in between barks, threatening to go through the window at any moment.

Free shaping changed Smokey’s life. He picked it up almost instantly, as if he was saying, “Finally we are going to try something that I can understand.” Within the first session he was running around the box, jumping over the box, getting in the box, barking at the box. I stared in amazement.

We did a few more sessions with beer boxes, cookie sheets, metal trashcan lids and chairs. After about a month of free shaping I said to Smokey, “Do you want to play the clicker game?” Immediately, he jumped off the couch, tongue lolling, tail wagging and pranced over to me. Sure mom, I’m always up for playing the clicker game.

I put the shop vac in the middle of the dining room floor and held my breath. Smokey looked at it, click! He walked toward it, click! Hesitantly, he wagged his tail a couple times. He put his nose to it, click! His tail speed increased. He put his paw on it, click! He sat by it and barked, click! He began to push it around the room with his nose, click! Click! Click! His tail wagged frantically, more! More!

But I stopped. Enough. I wanted him to want more every time I decided to bring it out.

The next session, I plugged it in and let him play the clicker game with the wire (decidedly not clicking if he put the wire in his mouth). While we were playing, he advertently jumped up and turned it on himself. Click! Ten treats as fast as I could shovel them in his mouth. His tail never stopped, in fact, he stayed standing on top of it like he had just conquered Mount Everest, tongue hanging out, grinning ear to ear.

Fear diminished in Smokey’s life. Then vanished. He hardly ever encounters something he fears. Recently, I was taking him on a walk around the neighborhood. Our neighbor had rented a backhoe to do some pipe work. We were walking past, and Smokey jumped about five feet back. I didn’t even notice it was there, but he certainly did. When I saw his reaction, I laughed. It had been so long since I’d seen him afraid that I’d forgotten what he was like when he was. Immediately, I pulled the clicker out of my pocket and said, “Smokey, do you want to play the clicker game?”

Just in case you didn't know what a backhoe looked like (or which piece of heavy highway equipment it was) this is it.

He wagged his tail and walked forward. I pointed to the backhoe, telling him that was the object we were playing with. He turned around and looked at me. If dogs could talk, I think he would have been saying, “This is so not a box.” But the free shaping was so ingrained in him, and he enjoyed it so much, he just couldn’t resist. Carefully, he walked forward, click! He put his paw up on the tread, click! He walked around it, sniffing, click! Before I knew it, he was standing in the bucket, click! I guess the neighbors heard me open the door, because they came out just as Smokey got a click for jumping all the way into the thing. When they walked outside, I smiled sheepishly and said, “Sorry, but he was afraid of it.”

The man looked at me like I had two heads, then looked at Smokey, who was happily perched in the driver’s seat of the backhoe, “Doesn’t look like it to me.”

“Well, he’s not anymore, but he was, see…you know, never mind, we’ll be going.”

“Wait.” He stopped me before I could turn around and leave, “Do you think I could get a picture of your dog in that backhoe?”

I grinned and nodded, “Sure!” They promised me a copy, but I haven’t seen it yet. I guess that’s okay though, considering they let my dog free shape with their backhoe.