Category Archives: Shaping

The Dog Training Hack Every Owner Needs To Know

Are you doing things in the wrong order? Many of my clients are when I first meet them.

“Honey, I’m going to take the dog for a walk so he can go potty.”

“The dog is barking at me and won’t leave me alone. I think he needs more exercise.”

“Go get the treats so Fido will come when I call him.”

If these phrases sound familiar, I have a training hack that’s going to make life with your pup so much easier.

The good news is you’re doing all the right things. There’s just one small problem… you’re doing them in the wrong order! The result is that your dog takes 40 minutes to pee outside, doesn’t know how to relax, and will only come to you if you’re holding treats in your hand. With one small change, all of these problems will disappear.

By the time I meet with clients for the first time, most of them have a basic but incomplete understanding of positive reinforcement. They know that dogs need to eat, food is readily available, and it’s easy to use kibble during training sessions. One of the first things I teach clients is the importance of expanding the reinforcement menu. In order to do things in the right order, you have to understand what reinforcement is – and what it isn’t. Hint: It’s not sparkle dust, rainbows, and good intentions!

Reinforcement is any consequence that happens immediately after a behavior occurs that will increase the likelihood of that behavior occurring again in the future. Your pup is being reinforced all the time whether you’re aware of it or not. My job is to make you aware of it! We will find everything your dog wants and needs and provide these “real life reinforcers” immediately after your dog does something you like.  Once you understand that reinforcement does not just mean food you’ll automatically stop doing things in the wrong order.

Let’s take a look at three scenarios through that lens.

“Honey, I’m going to take the dog for a walk so he can go potty.” In this scenario, the dog has learned that when he eliminates, the walk ends. That’s no fun!! Fido learns to “hold it” so he can stay out longer. This is the opposite of the client’s goal! Imagine if the dog peed FIRST, and THEN went on a short jaunt around the block (or a long adventure). That’s a dog who will run to the curb and pee immediately when it gets outside, even if it’s 15 degrees out!

“The dog is really excited and won’t leave me alone, I think he needs more exercise.” Oh boy. Variations on this theme include “He barks at me constantly.” Here Fido has learned that running around like a lunatic (or barking excessively) results in the humans stopping whatever boring thing they’re doing to pay attention and play with him.

He loves attention! He loves to play! While he might be temporarily satiated and tired from a bout of play, the dog is learning that ramping up and becoming aroused makes play happen. The humans are actually increasing the annoying attention seeking behaviors in their dog that they ultimately wanted to see less of. Imagine instead that you initiate play sessions only when you noticed your pup relaxing quietly? Your pup will still get his needs met, but will also learn to be happy to hanging out on his own when Mom or Dad is busy.

“Go get the treats so Fido will come when I call him.” In this scenario, the dog is learning that “food in hand” is part of the cue for the recall behavior. The cue is no longer “Fido, Come!”… it’s “Fido, Come If I Am Holding Food!” While I do believe that every successful recall should be reinforced, the food (or toy, or game of “chase the human!”) should be produced AFTER the dog arrives. These owners are teaching their dog to ignore them if they are not holding food. Whoops!! That’s not what they wanted to teach at all! By setting up the environment a bit differently beforehand (hiding treats/toys around the house out of reach or in different pockets/bags when outside) this issue can be eliminated.

Happy Training!


A Shaping Plan That Sparks Joy

The decluttering technique known as the “Konmari Method” outlined in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo makes very good sense when viewed through the lense of behavior analysis. Kondo sets her followers up for success. Her process looks an awful lot like a well thought out shaping plan, and boy do I love finding good examples of effective human behavior modification in real life.

No matter where on the neat freak to slob spectrum you land, I’m willing to bet two things:

1. You wish your home was beautifully organized and would stay that way forever.

2. You know the current location of your kitchen plates.

Dishes have an easily defined place and after mealtime they get washed, dried, and go back in the cupboard where they belong. Why isn’t everything we own that easy to clean and put back? My husband and I are not slobs, but we’re busy and during the workweek items tend to land… anywhere. We pick up on the weekend, and we LOVE when everything is tidy and in it’s place. It would be lovely if our apartment looked more put together on a daily basis, but our focus is elsewhere.

As busy as I am, my dresser drawers are living proof that Marie Kondo’s method works. I dumped and organized my tops in October.

Here are those drawers now (8 months later), still perfectly organized. And no, I did not clean up before taking this photo. I just opened my drawer.

Here are those drawers now (8 months later), still perfectly organized. And no, I did not clean up before taking this photo. I just opened my drawer.

Kondo approaches decluttering in a way that makes SENSE. She’s serious when she says you only have to do this process once. Here is a brief outline of the process and why it works:

  1. The first step is to gather each and every item you own from one category (example: shirts)

    You’ll be surprised at how much you have once it’s all in one place – reality check! You pick up each item and ask “Does this spark joy?” and then keep only the things you love. You also thank the items you’re not keeping, before sending them on their way (hopefully donated to goodwill). Instead of feeling guilty, you feel grateful. When you’ve gone through the process, the items you still have are ones you really care about. This motivating operation makes you much more inclined to take care of the clothes you have, because you love them. Taking care of your stuff is no longer a chore.

  2. The second step is to learn a new skill – folding is your alternate behavior.

    I used to hate folding and thought this would be the part of this method that didn’t work for me, but there is something magical about the way clothes are folded in the Konmari method. Each item is inspected, so you notice stains or rips that need mending, and can see at a glance if it’s time to “thank the item for it’s service” and let it go. Once folded, each item stands on it’s own, placed next to other items of the same kind. It’s reinforcing to see how all of my clothes sit beautifully next to each other in the drawer. I’m motivated to keep it up because it’s useful to see all my options at a glance. The clothes I’ve folded properly are never wrinkled when I put them on again.

  3. The last step is to designate a place for each item.

    It’s easy to put something away when you’ve designated a spot for it so you know where it goes without thinking. Instead of organizing based on how easy it is to get to an item when you need it, you organize based on how easy it is to put an item away. This smart motivating operation will make us much more likely to put our things where they belong! Maintaining organization is about modifying your environment so that you know where each item belongs and it’s easy to put things back in their place.

  4. The process teaches you to listen to your gut when answering the question “Does this Spark Joy?”

    Kondo insists the process starts with items that we are least emotional about (tops) and work up to items that have the most sentimental value (letters, photos). This is an excellent shaping plan. It takes effort and practice to connect with our true selves and decide what is of value to us. So many of us don’t know what we want or love and don’t give ourselves permission to honor our true desires. What we love is buried under social pressure, the taste of our family, friends, and peers, trends in advertisements, and other psychological muck. But that doesn’t matter. You don’t need to go to therapy to go through this process. Marie Kondo’s simple question: “Does this Spark Joy?” is one that each person can answer for themselves if they are willing to take a moment and listen. Looking at and being surrounded by the items you have chosen to keep is reinforcing, so it’s easy to continue the process. As you move along you get better at listening when your gut answers “yes!” or “nope” and the process of letting go of material objects that DO NOT “Spark Joy” switches from daunting to liberating. The physical objects that remain inspire happiness and gratitude. The Konmari Method of Tidying Up becomes more than a way to keep your house clutter free. It’s also a practical practice of saying yes to joy and letting go of everything that does not serve us. With practice and an incremental shaping plan, it becomes easy to face – and answer – the big questions. Does my marriage spark joy? My job? The city I’ve chosen to live in?

  5. A practice of Gratitude.

    A helpful recommendation therapists often make to their dissatisfied or depressed clients is to end the day by writing down 5 things they are thankful for. This is a great first step, but Konmari takes it further and helps us generalize the practice of gratitude so it becomes a regular part of our everyday lives. Going through the process of “Konmari-ing” your home helps awaken gratitude for the things you have. Replacing unwanted thoughts and behaviors (complacency, lack of appreciation, feelings of sadness, failure, or of not keeping up with the Jones’s, of not getting what we thought we wanted or deserved out of life, of keeping things or doing things out of obligation) with thoughts and actions of gratitude has shown time and time again to be a large factor in countering depression. Each time you touch an item, examine it, fold it, and put it away you are practicing gratitude. The process of “Konmari-ing” our homes leads us through small actionable steps we can take to reawaken our own small joys, which lead to discovering big joys and passions.  Through this process, Konmari is helping us shape ourselves, in tiny micro criteria, towards being happier and more fulfilled.

So, what does decluttering your home have to do with dog training? So many of my day training clients see their dogs performing new behaviors for the first time and look at me like I’ve performed magic, so it’s apt that the title of Marie Kondos’ book is “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”. But it isn’t magic – it’s science. The laws of learning apply to all living beings on earth, not only to our canine companions. Shaping molds our behavior whether a plan was carefully developed by a behavior analyst, dog trainer or merely by life. We learn through shaping in small steps of criteria, repeat what has been previously reinforced and cease to do that which has been punished. Want a cleaner home? Use this to your advantage. You don’t even have to write a training plan. Konmari has done that work for you.