Rainy day dog training games using free shaping and positive reinforcement

As the San Diego winter rolls in with rain and chilly weather, some dogs will be short-changed on long walks and trips to the dog park on bad weather days.  Free shaping with your dog can be a great way to burn off some of your dog’s mental energy, especially on rainy days you spend inside together.  Free shaping is an exercise that empowers your dog by teaching him to think, make decisions, and focus on a task.  It involves teaching your dog tricks by capturing behaviors he performs as he moves incrementally toward your ultimate goal for the trick.

This game is best played with a clicker (small box that makes a “click” sound to mark correct behaviors).  Visit www.clickertraining.com for more information on clicker training.  If your dog is not clicker trained yet, you can still play this game.  If you have a clicker, spend a day clicking the clicker and following it with a treat so your dog learns to associate the click sound with receiving a piece of food.  The click will then mean, “you have done the correct behavior, and you will soon receive a food reward.”  If you do not have a clicker, you can still play the game by using a word such as “GOOD!” or “YES!” to mark correct behaviors, and follow that word with a treat.  In either case, you will want to be very specific with your timing by clicking your clicker or saying your word right at the moment your dog performs the behavior.  The treat always follows this mark.

To start Free Shaping, begin with an object such as a half full water bottle, a football, a ring full of keys, or one of his toys.  Next, choose a goal for your dog’s interaction with the object.  For example, you would like him to roll the water bottle with his nose, press a button on a video game controller with his left paw, open a container with his paws, or roll a soccer ball into a box with his nose.  Place the object on the floor near your dog, and get ready for the game to begin.  You and your dog will now play a “hot and cold” game.  He will likely attempt to explore the object you’ve just placed in front of him.  You will now click and then treat for any move he makes that is closer to your ultimate goal for the behavior.  If your goal is for him to roll the water bottle with his nose, you may start by clicking and then treating for him doing some version of the following:  looking toward the bottle, walking toward the bottle, putting his head down near the bottle, touching the bottle, touching the bottle with his nose, making the bottle move, making the bottle roll, making the bottle roll further, etc. There may be periods of quiet while your dog thinks about his options and what to do with the object.  Be patient, and let him think.  If your dog tries the wrong thing, don’t do anything.  If he is motivated by the treats, he will soon learn he is guessing what it is you want him to do, and he will try something else after an incorrect guess.  He learns that things he does can produce things he likes (treats and verbal praise from you).

When your dog has completed the goal you set for him, you can give it a name so he can later perform it on cue.  You can say the name just before he starts to perform the behavior.  Later, you can use the same object and change the goal, or you can use a completely new object and new goal.  This use of positive reinforcement dog training will help you teach your dog tricks while building your relationship with him, building his confidence, and giving him something fun to do.  For more information on trick training, clicker training, and positive reinforcement, email Erin at erin@woofsandiego.com or call 858.213.9580.

2 thoughts on “Rainy day dog training games using free shaping and positive reinforcement”

  1. It’s very good to read this useful post on dog training.

    I have a question though. How do you train an older dog?

  2. Hi Alexia! You can train an older dog using the same techniques as you would use on a puppy or younger dog. It may take a little more time, if the dog has some habits that are already established that you are trying to change, but the technique and overall idea are usually the same.

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