Those of you who train or take online classes with me probably know that I don’t really have a method of training.  Instead, the question I ask is “What is the most expedient and logical way to train THIS dog with THIS hander at THIS time?”  I don’t care how people train their dogs as long as they are both physically and emotionally kind to the dog, and since no method is innately better than any other method, it’s irrelevant if another dog-handler team might progress more quickly using a different option.  For me, mastery of the target behavior means that, in the dog’s most comfortable environment and without a cookie in hand, the dog can perform the target behavior to criteria.   That mastery can be obtained through shaping, luring/targeting, capturing, etc.   Train the team in front of you and that mastery will happen.

This term I’m teaching Precision Heeling online.  I’ve taught it several times now.  The first time I taught the class, almost none of the students had a clue about what platforms or discs were, let alone how to use them, so we started at the beginning and we used a ton of luring.  And this time; three years later?  Almost every working team has come into class with skills that include a basic level of comfort with training aids like discs and platforms.  In addition, I’ve also noticed that the overall comfort level with shaping behaviors is much much higher.

I could have taught the first class with shaping, but why?  They didn’t sign up for a class on shaping, they signed up for a class on heeling.  If I have a perfectly good method that uses luring, I might as well use it.  Heck, all of my current dogs got plenty of luring in their initial heeling training, and by my definition (perform the target behavior  in their most comfortable environment without a motivator on my body), they learned it fine.

But this time, I find myself incorporating a good deal more shaping with some of the teams, right from the start, which brings me to this blog:  How does a trainer decide if a dog-handler team is a better candidate for luring, shaping, or a blend of the two?  Let’s look at it:

  1.  The preference of the handler.  This is the most important consideration because the chances that a person will successfully train their dog go way up if they have bought in to what you want them to do.  If a person has a preference then you might as run with it.  Over time, that person might change their preference; they might want to branch out to something new, or they might want to stay with their current methods – and neither of those is my concern.  If the handler expresses a preference, I’ll honor it.
  2. The preference of the dog.  Yes, dogs have preferences.  Some dogs have very clear, calm and thinking brains.  They enjoy puzzles and don’t go over the top with frustration for the desired motivator when they are learning.  These dogs are prime shaping candidates.  I avoid shaping target behaviors with frantic dogs.
  3. The skill level of the hander.  Even dogs that tend to be frantic and not clear headed can do just fine with shaping if the handler is quick and experienced.  So if the handler has expressed a preference for shaping and they can make it work for their dog without emotionally abusing them with frustration, then that’s fine too.
  4. The target behavior.  With a skill like Precision Heeling, it’s easy to use shaping for some behaviors, luring for others, and a blend of the two for others still – as often as not a session or two of luring will make the process of shaping future (related) behaviors go extremely quickly.  Other behaviors don’t lend themselves as easily to as much variety.  For example, I almost always shape a formal retrieve.
  5. The dog’s learning history.  I find that dogs that have a strong shaping history are extremely quick and easy to train in this manner, so I’ll go there first.  Likewise, if a dog has a heavy history of luring I’ll tend to continue on that path unless the handler has expressed a different interest.  Remember, the student signed up to teach their dog precision heeling, not to learn a new training technique, so honor that if you can.

The “right” training technique is the one that minimizes frustration and moves the team to  mastery of their goal behaviors.

In some circumstances, such a tailored approach is not possible, so maybe I should add two additional criteria; the comfort level of the trainer and the circumstances at hand!  If you really only know or like one way to train a behavior, or if you are in a class environment where tailored training is difficult to achieve, then do what makes sense for your situation.

On another note:  Monday the 15th of August is the last day to sign up for a class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  With 34 classes to choose from, there’s a lot of opportunity to learn, whether your interest is skill building for a particular sport, learning to play or engage your dog,  or helping your nervous dog handle the world a bit better.  I’m teaching Precision Heeling and Engagement.  Check out the schedule here!: