Shaping is very potent art form in training. It involves the use of certain tools and concepts.
There is a specific function of the click with shaping; it adds precision to our training by marking the exact moment we want the horse to remember what its body was doing at the time it heard the sound, then come get the reinforcer.
One of the specific uses of the click is to aid in teaching behavior. One of the most well-established protocols in shaping is to get successive approximations in which we mark a current level of interpretation of the behavior. During the learning phase we expect the animal to repeat what it was doing when it heard the click, but because behavior VARIES we can select shifts in the performance of the behavior and begin to work towards creating new approximations.
Repetition is the measuring tool by which the human can assess whether or not the animal is learning what we want them to learn. If I were to click for every behavior my horse offered, I might have a horse that’s happier in training but I will have lost the potency of the click. If I use the click to mean “Keep going, I like that,” once again I will have lost the precision the click gives me. With the precision of the click I can shape a canter departure, levade, gait transitions, an eye brow lift, scent work or match to sample. It’s all just behavior and it’s all behavior I have shaped.
Shaping allows the student, in this case a horse, to learn what’s required without unnecessary intervention from the human.
Shaping allows the animal to integrate and organize its own body to perform a task in a way that we could might have difficulty creating with our external aides. In my personal opinion humans create brace, unnecessary resistance, disorganization and akward movements in the horse because we are too quick to get our hands on the lead or reins attached to the animal and try to create a look that might please our eye, but it is costly to the animal in terms of its freedom of motion. Shaping allows the animal to figure out its own coordination. Once that is done the cues for those coordinated efforts make more sense and can then be accessed by the human.
Shaping teaches the animal to think. Part of clicker training is the process of creating a language that includes the animal’s efforts to understand how to gain access to what it wants. It’s not a matter of the human petting the horse on the head and handing it a cookie, it’s a matter of engaging that thinking part of the horse that wants to be involved in its own training because there is something in it for him besides relief of pressure. We’re engaging the part of the horse that wants to solve the puzzle. This is one of the most powerful components of shaping. The animal is working with us and participates in its own training.
There is one type of shaping protocol where the trainer stands back and is completely uninvolved while the animal is learning. The person is only involved by making the sound of the click and placing the food. I do not personally often use shaping in that manner. I have done free shaping, as it is called, I have sat in a chair and waited for the animal to figure out the behavior which I then clicked. However, before I attempted that, my animal had a rich reinforcement history and understood the process of learning and guessing games that help make free-shaping easier.
Free-shaping takes skill and a complete understanding of what the animal needs to do with its body movement to achieve a behavior. Free-shaping can be fun for both horse and human, it does not need to illicit frustration. In fact no training needs to illicit frustration. You can be shaping, capturing, targeting or even luring and find a way to do it without frustrating the animal. In my mind it is a given that we’re trying to train without frustration.
The process of using shaping to train DOES need to be learned. The animal DOES need to be taught how the system works. They need to feel safe offering behavior and they need to learn when and where shaping games can be offered. We need to make it clear that every time we engage with the animal we will be training differently, and that when we are shaping new behavior the setup will make that clear.
If you have not tried much shaping, I would WHOLE HEARTEDLY SUGGEST IT. I think it makes better trainers out of us. When we get our hands off the leads, targets, wands or swinging ropes we HAVE to understand the bio-mechanics of what we’re trying to train. We HAVE to find a way to engage our horse without pressure, and doing so makes us more aware of what the horse is actually doing.
I run clicker training online study groups all the time and I have seen it happen with countless clients. Once they learn how to set it up so the horse has a reasonable chance to guess the beginnings of the desired behavior, and then they witness the enthusiastic offering of that newly aquired ability of their horse as it begins to suss out the nature of the puzzle, they are almost always blown away by how little they need to do, and just how SMART their horse can be.
I love shaping because of what it has taught me about allowing the horse to set the pace and learn. It has taught ME to HONOR and RESPECT the horse even more, for all of its generosity and willingness to keep interacting with humans.