Thursday, September 3, 2009

Luring vs Shaping

Hi all,

Since my computer broke, I have had a bit of time on my hands to think about some aspects of training. One of them is the benefits of luring vs shaping, and the disadvantages of each.

I tend to use quite a bit of shaping when I train the dogs, and this has carried over to the birds. Many people know that my first dog, Sophie, was trained using some pretty harsh methods when I first got her. I haven't described what I did with my second dog, Sidney. I went to a very good competition obedience instructor, who used luring in his classes to teach puppies what their jobs were. So Sidney learned to "follow the cookie", and really, he did very very well. He learned each skill quickly, and I found it pretty easy to get rid of the lure.

A while after Sid went through his obedience training, I received my first clicker in a goodie bag at a national agility competition. I had heard about shaping, and how to use a clicker, so I sat down with both Sidney and Sophie to see what I could teach them. I started with Sidney, and thought I would teach him to play dead. While I worked with him, Sophie watched (very closely, I might add).

Poor Sidney. You could practically see the smoke coming from his ears. He was very interested in the treats, and clearly wanted them, but it seemed that without the crutch of a lure to follow, he was completely lost. And, even bigger, he wasn't inclined to offer any behaviors at all. He waited for me to show him what to do, and when I didn't, he gave up the whole project. What happened next, though, was astounding, at least to me.

Sophie moved right into the spot Sidney had occupied, and played dead. The complete behavior, as if she had been through an entire shaping program. Holy cow!

I thought that this just showed the personality differences of the 2 dogs - Sophie was just smart, and Sidney, well, let's just say he was a short bus candidate :(. I was really interested in learning more about using a clicker to train, though, so I joined a bunch of clicker training lists. I soon started hearing something that was really interesting - many professional dog trainers with lots of experience with all sorts of dogs preferred punishment-based trained dogs to lured dogs for retraining projects. The reason? In their experience, dogs whose previous training was based on "following the cookie" were very very difficult to get to offer behaviors, or, in their words, to get to THINK. Hmmm.

My next dog, Bungee, was another learning experience for me. I wanted to do more shaping with him, and learn more about how it works. I found, in Bungee's case, that I needed to be careful with what behaviors I shaped, and even how I shaped them. Bungee tends to really get off on hearing the clicker, with obvious physical reactions to each click. It made a shaping program very difficult to implement, with Bungee jumping around chirping like a monkey and throwing behaviors at machine-gun speed. I learned not only how to use shaping with him, but when not to use it.

I learned to value independently offered behaviors, and an animal that thinks and then has the confidence to act upon those thoughts. So, when I started working with the parrots, I took those values with me. Peepers and Sparky both have played "101 things" to encourage offering new unique behaviors, just like the dogs. I rarely use a target stick to induce behavior from them, because it feels like "follow the cookie" to me, and given my personal experience, and the stories from professional dog trainers, I am inclined to shy away from using lures to get behaviors with my birds.

I've been told that parrots don't really offer behaviors, and that Peepers is a little unusual. I have wondered if this idea is really because of the nature of parrots, or if it has as much to do with the usual training practices. I generally see suggestions on the lists to have the bird follow a target to get a behavior going. I wonder what would happen if many parrots were trained mostly using shaping. Would we find that they throw lots of behaviors? Or would we find that most parrots would quit doing anything when given the option to do anything? As I wonder about this, I keep trying to use as much shaping as possible with Peepers and Sparky, just in case luring has the same effect on parrots as I have heard it does on dogs.

In the meantime... Sparky flew to me for the first time in at least a year and a half the other day. It was a difficult first flight, too, that she initiated. It involved a blind u-turn in a hallway to a room she had never been in. I am so so excited. Since then, she has started flying here and there in the house, and it is so awesome to see her struggling along to get her strength back, all while hearing her twitters that sound so full of pride. I'll have to try and get some pics when I get my camera back.


  1. Great post!

    When I started clicker training my dog, I used a lot of targeting. Which worked well, as I could just fade the target once she understood the behavior. However, now she has a lot of trouble with shaping.

    There's a fine balance between shaping and luring/targeting, which I think can be different depending on the trainer, the animal and the situation.

    For instance, I really enjoy using shaping with my horses because they're damn smart and pick up on things really quickly. However, I have to be somewhat cautious with what I shape-- there's some behaviors that I don't want a 1000 lb. animal to be offering!

    Anyways, I just found your blog and want to say that I really like it!


    Mary H.

  2. Thanks Mary! I absolutely agree that it really does come down to the individual and their goals with their particular animal.