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Free Shaping: There Are No Wrong Answers

Danny is a smart dog. He learns new tricks easily, he likes to add to his vocabulary, and he likes to have the right answer. He would ace the SATs, particularly the verbals. He is Annie on Community. 

But he is not creative. When faced with a problem, like certain puzzle toys or a lumpy blanket that’s keeping him from sleeping in his bed, he cannot figure out a way to fix the situation. He throws himself at puzzle toys with wild abandon, eventually getting the treat but not really knowing the mechanism that makes it work. He’ll just go sleep somewhere else rather than moving the blanket with his teeth.

I really noticed this when we were doing shaping with the clicker this winter. If he didn’t know the answer, Danny wouldn’t offer a new behavior, he would offer what it almost always the right answer: sit and look at me. When that didn’t work, he’d whine and pant and work himself into a frustrated frenzy.

So I decided to do free shaping, which has as its only goal getting a dog like Danny to offer new behavior. I got out our box, put a bunch of treats in my pocket, and sat in a chair in the living room with the box a few feet in front of me. Danny knows the smell of treats, and he knows the box means training games, but he still gave me the right answer: sit and stare.

A box full of right answers.

A box full of right answers. It’s pretty fancy.

But this time that wasn’t the right answer. The right answer was doing anything — anything at all — with the box. At first, if he looked at it, he got a click and treat. Then it was anything goes: touch with a paw, touch with the nose, foot in the box, nose in the box, flip over the box, scratch at the box — all got a click and treat. There were no commands; only praise. There were no wrong answers.

Danny didn’t quite understand such an unstructured game. He would stop, sit, and stare, which are always the right answer. He is good at filling in that bubble with a number 2 pencil. I’d tell him he was awesome, and after a bit he’d go back to the box. Click and treat.

I’m going to put free shaping in regular rotation to help Danny work his creative brain. He’s going to have to acknowledge the box if he’s ever going to think outside it.

UPDATE: If you’re concerned about feeding your dog too much on rainy days with little exercise, portion out his dinner in a mug or whatever and use his kibble as treats during clicker training. That’s what I did with Danny this weekend, then I just gave him whatever was left in the mug at his normal dinner time.

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