In this episode we discuss:

  • Why we often consider shaping to be an advanced technique
  • Why I think it doesn’t have to/shouldn’t be that way
  • Why I think how many of us first learned about shaping is contributing to the problem
  • How the expectations we have around shaping (based on how we were taught) might be getting in the way of doing good training
  • The two expectations that can get in the way: that shaping is linear and that it should be spontaneous
  • Changing how we think about shaping to consider the whole ABC contingency can allow us to do better training without having to struggle so much
  • You can set yourself and your dog up for success and it is still shaping!
  • There is no cheating in shaping as long as you are being honest with yourself (and your dog)
  • Setting up for success means a lot more than just training in a low distraction environment
  • The shaping staircase is a great model for teaching someone about the concept of successive approximation, but it is limiting in real life application
  • Consider building behaviors from components
  • The first “step” in your shaping plan may look nothing like the final behavior.
  • It might even seem to be farther away from your goal than where you are now!

Links mentioned:

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Episode Transcript

Hannah: [00:00:00] If you feel like shaping is super hard, maybe examine some of your beliefs around your expectations that shaping should be linear and that it should be spontaneous. Pull some attention to how you’re designing your shaping plan, how you’re designing your training sessions, and how might you break your goal behavior into components that may not look like they’re connected to each other.


You’re listening to Drinking from the Toilet. If you like to geek out about combining the science of behavior with positive reinforcement philosophy in real life, you’ve come to the right place. And I’m your host, Hannah Branigan: teacher, trainer, podcaster, and author of the book Awesome Obedience and its companion, Awesome Obedience: The Field Guide, which are both available from [00:01:00]

Okay, this is at least the fourth time that I’ve recorded this episode. I almost don’t care anymore, but I do care because I love this subject so much. But I don’t consider myself to be a superstitious person (I mean, except for when I kind of am), but I swear this episode has been cursed. Maybe the information is too good and it’s being suppressed. I don’t know. But I’m gonna power through it this time. You’re gonna hear it. I’m now on a brand new microphone. It seems to be functioning as it should so far. I mean like, “Come on, microphone. You have one job.” So hopefully this will do it. All right.

Enrollment for Zero to CD, my online membership program, is officially full for this year. We will reopen again for enrollment in April of 2023. What? That’s messing with my head. Okay. Time’s a construct, but we’re gonna go by the calendar as it is currently observed by the majority of humanity, [00:02:00] unless or until there is some kind of exciting, wobbly-wobbly shakeup as part of the next stage of the apocalypse. But we can cross that bridge when we come to it. So if you were looking to level up your training skills in the context of a long term continuous program with a ridiculous amount of community support from nerdy, reinforcement-minded trainers, you’ll wanna mark your conventional calendar for next April.

So this week, I’m going to continue to share some of my thoughts around shaping and why it’s so hard and what we might do differently to make it not so hard.

This episode is brought to you by On Cue training treats from Karen Pryor Clicker Training and the support of some awesome folks on Patreon. It is amazing listeners like Gwen T and Hailey that make it possible to provide things like our new transcripts that one of my favorite dog nerds, skilled trainers and [00:03:00] inexplicably-devoted listeners, Bridger Watson, is putting together for us. So make sure to check out the link in the show notes for the transcript. And if you would like to support the podcast, get your questions answered, get access to super-secret extra podcast episodes, you can go to and there’s a link in the show notes for that too.

So I talked about how I have noticed that there are two major expectations that get in the way and I think are a big part of why we perceive shaping as a process, as a procedure, to be so hard for trainers and they are: the expectation that shaping should be a linear process and that it should be a spontaneous process.

And last time we mainly focused on the challenges around looking for shaping to be spontaneous, which is a problem because we can never really separate behavior, shaping or not, from the environment. [00:04:00] Behavior is always occurring in the environment. It’s never occurring in a vacuum. That’s the whole point behind looking at the ABC, antecedent behavior consequence, as the smallest unit of behavior. You really can’t split them out. We want to, I’d love to, man I wish we could, but we can’t.

So they’re always occurring together. You’re always in a room somewhere or outside, right? And so whatever the picture includes during a shaping session, those stimuli are all on the table for being part of the cue for whatever behaviors occurred during the shaping session, and so of course, anything in there can help or hinder the process of the training session that you were hoping to have.

This time, I want to talk about the issues with seeing shaping as a linear process. I think a lot of us originally learned – I know this is true for me – originally learned about shaping using the shaping staircase model. This is [00:05:00] where I really wish I had a whiteboard to help with this visualization, but I’ll do the best that I can to use words and my voice to describe it.

Okay. So the idea with the shaping staircase– and I think it’s a good model. I actually really do. Because it is very easy when you aren’t used to thinking about behavior in slices, it’s very easy to only see like the full behavior and say, “Well, the thing is that I want isn’t happening now and so everything is terrible.” (I think about that at least six times a day. But back to dog training!)

The idea behind the shaping staircase is that you have a goal behavior that you’re trying to work towards and you have a starting point, which is where you are now. And the staircase can be visualized as a stair step line, like a sort of zigzag line, just like a staircase where you start off with your starting point, then you go up and then over, and then up, and then over, and up, and then over. And every step [00:06:00] has a different slice of that behavior. And each step builds on the one before it and carries you closer and closer to your goal.

So a possible concrete example might be literally training a dog to go up or down a staircase, like an actual physical staircase. Like this is one of the first behaviors that I teach new dogs and new puppies that come to my house because my house is built kind of on the side of a hill and to get out into the dog yard, there’s a step to the kitchen and there’s another step to the back porch and then there are several steps to get from the back porch into the backyard, which is the primary potty yard. So the sooner any dog in my house can learn to navigate that path and the steps involved to get to the potty yard independently, like the better my life gets. So that’s a super high priority thing for me, especially with puppies and young dogs who may need to go [00:07:00] out in the middle of the night. I want them to be able to do those things safely. And it is not uncommon– Rugby is the obvious example, Rugby being my border terrier, small guy, and he was shorter in the stairs, so I did make some physical allowances there and at times I’ve added a ramp to that, especially for my old dogs or puppies.But even Figment, who is a medium size breed, being a border collie and a big border collie at that, was very hesitant about using the stairs. And I think there’s a lot– well, there’s a whole nother episode about the physicality of organizing all of those limbs, which are brand new, right? I mean, when Figment came home, he had only had those legs for eight weeks. A few more if we go embryonic, but I don’t wanna get political here. But at any rate, the legs were new, they were longer every day, so he was constantly having to get used to them. And organizing that to get down a couple of stairs to get to the yard was not nothing. So that was a whole task.

Okay. So shaping-staircase-wise and [00:08:00] obvious starting point is, I’m gonna go with the up direction just cause it’s easier to talk about. So obvious starting point is that he’s on the ground. And the obvious goal is that he’s in the kitchen, which is where I would like to stand when I’m not wearing any pants and

I’m just wearing the T-shirt that I slept in and I wanna stand at the back door and open it and let the dog out and let them back in without me having to walk barefoot and half-naked into the backyard. Not like my neighbors haven’t already seen that many times. But anyways, so starting point is on the ground; endpoint is in the kitchen. And the first step would obviously be, well, he gets up the first step and then he gets up the second step. That would be the second step. I think you can follow along with this one. And then he is up the third step. Fourth step is the porch. Fifth step is into the kitchen.

So that’s my goal. And so if I were to look at that as shaping steps, well, starting on the ground, when he gets up on the first step, I can mark and reward, click and treat. When he gets up on the second step, I can click and treat. When he gets up on the third step, I can click and treat. Fourth step, [00:09:00] that’s my porch, click and treat. And the fifth step is in the kitchen. Boom, problem solved. Now he knows how to get into the kitchen.

And I have absolutely perceived it that way. And I do think that, again, I really do think that the shaping staircase is a solid model. It’s a really good visual tool when you are explaining shaping to someone who has never thought of it at all, who’s learning about it for the very first time, they’re not familiar with the concepts around successful approximation and you’re just trying to get a foot in the door.

And I think that it can be pretty limiting. It is entirely true that if I have a puppy who has never gone upstairs by themselves and my goal is to get them in the kitchen, that trying to get the whole thing to happen and give them the treat in the kitchen is going to be very frustrating for both of us.

Reinforcing them on each step on their way up? That’s a really good plan. That’s definitely better than reinforcing them only when they get in the kitchen and waiting for the whole [00:10:00] “in the kitchen” thing to happen with a puppy who has never gone up stairs ever before in their life. I can’t even imagine. That’s hard for me to think that way at this point. I’m sure I do that in many, many, many other ways. I don’t wanna sound like I’ve got it all together because I don’t.

It is absolutely true that one step up the staircase is closer to the kitchen than being in the yard and two steps is closer than that, and three steps, et cetera.

However, this model has gotten in my way with conceptualizing a shaping plan on a number of occasions. So I’m going to switch to a different example here. This is one I’ve talked about and I shared video as part of a Clicker Expo presentation on shaping, ironically enough. A common shaping example exercise that is used is teaching your dog to get in a box.

So let’s say that your starting point is that there is a box and your dog is [00:11:00] not in it. He’s outside of the box. Your dog is on the floor and your goal behavior is for him to get all four feet in the box, maybe even lay down in the box. I usually like to to train that because I think it’s adorable when they lay down with like all of their feet under them and they look like a furry meatloaf. It’s just adorable in a box. So they’re in a loaf pan. Anyways.

All four feet in the box is the goal behavior and you currently have zero feet in the box. So an obvious shaping strategy might be to reinforce for looking at the box. That might be step one. And then maybe one foot in the box, and then maybe two feet in the box, three feet in the box, four feet in the box, boom. The behavior has been trained.

Now, there are two ways that I see this becoming a problem using this very linear shaping plan of 1, 2, 3, 4 feet shaping plan. And there are a couple of things. One, it is so common for us to, as part of this linear expectation, that [00:12:00] once the dog has performed step two, that’s our new criteria.

So say I’ve been training, shaping this behavior for one minute or maybe this is my second session, maybe on to like five minutes total. And during that time, my dog has been no feet in the box, I don’t know, say like two thirds of the time and one foot in the box not quite a third of a time. I wish I’d done percentages now. What would that be? Let’s say like 66% of that time spent with no feet in the box and then 25% of that time was spent with one foot in the box. And now, now he’s put a second paw in the box. So 5% of the training time is spent with two paws in the box and now I’m suddenly gonna not reward looking at the box or putting one paw in the box; I’m only gonna reward two paws in the box. It has happened one time.

And so then what will [00:13:00] happen is that my dog will look at the box. He might even walk around and look at the box from a different direction. He might lift up a paw, paw at the edge of the box, put his paw in the box. Of course, the size of the steps on your shaping staircase matters a great deal here, but I did a podcast episode on that already. I think I called it “Lego Blocks, Not Cinder Blocks.” (Episode #38)

Okay. But during this time, he’s already put two feet in the box and so that’s my new criteria: You have to put two feet in the box to get the treat. And so he puts one foot in the box. He walks around and he puts one foot in the box. He walks around and he puts a different foot in the box. All of this is not being rewarded, not being reinforced. It’s his behavior that has been reinforced before. It is suddenly not being reinforced. That is a behavior that is going into extinction, pretty much by definition – I think actually exactly by definition. And I’m hoping to get the second foot in the box, even though it’s only happened once.

And sometimes it’s true. Sometimes that works. Oh my gosh. There’s that whole long interval random reinforcement schedule effect that [00:14:00] happens to us too, in the form of the dog’s behavior behavior. But I’m waiting for that second paw to get in the box and tons of time is going by with all of the previous variations of the behavior that have been reinforced, those are all happening, they’re not being reinforced, extinction is happening.

Frustration is a function of extinction. So frustration behaviors are showing up. Hopefully in this plan, hopefully the second paw going in the box is part of that, but it isn’t always. And when it does happen, it may often come with something else that I don’t want, like squeaking or barking or whining or foaming at the mouth or frantic behavior or scratching. A lot of stuff can happen there.

There’s also a chance it doesn’t happen again or it doesn’t happen again in a practical amount of time. I would have been better served in these shaping sessions to continue to reward one paw in the box and then also reward the second paw in the box and continue to reward the first paw in the box so that, yeah, some of the time probably [00:15:00] there’s a certain amount of looking at the box that doesn’t get rewarded, doesn’t get reinforced, but those responses are a much smaller amount compared to one paw in the box and two paws in the box.

And so by reinforcing two paws in the box and one paw in the box, now I have a lot more one paw in the box and more two paws in the box, and then a third paw maybe happens.

Ooh. Put a pin in that, because that brings me to the second obstacle that is super common when we are looking at shaping as a linear process, and that is if step three in your shaping plan actually makes step four impossible. So in this case would kinda be step two. Step two in the shaping plan might make step three impossible.

Alright, so let’s imagine that you are shaping with a relatively tall-sided box. You’ve got your Chewy box out and it’s pretty big because your dogs eat a lot of expensive, organic, premium dog food.[00:16:00] 

When your dog is standing with two feet in the box and two feet on the floor, the sides of the box are high enough that he physically can’t pick his hind feet up high enough to clear the edges to put a third foot in the box. He would be doing a crazy kind of split and then it would be impossible for him to keep a fourth foot on the floor while having the third foot in the box. I mean, I think we’ve all encountered this kind of situation when you’re trying to step over a baby gate and you realize that the distance from the ground to the top of the baby gate is actually higher than the distance from the ground between your foot and your crotch, and that’s physically not possible. You need a different strategy.

So the same thing here. Your dog can get bottomed out with two feet in the box and there’s no way for him to put the other feet in the box because what he really needs to do is back up and jump fully in. But he doesn’t have the four feet in the box [00:17:00] behavior, so he doesn’t know to jump in.

And the more you reinforce the two feet in the box, two feet in the box, two feet in the box, and you’re hoping to get a third foot, and then you stop reinforcing two feet in the box and you hope that a third foot will happen, but it doesn’t happen because two feet in the box makes it impossible to put the remaining feet in the box. He’s stuck.

This is similar to the example that Mary Hunter gave. I think we talked about it when she did an episode with me – I don’t know; time is construct, right? It was “recently,” but not that recently. (Episode #109, A Different Way to Think About Shaping.) She was training a service dog prospect to get in the car and he got stuck in this exact same kind of situation where he had two feet in the car and two feet on the ground, but having two feet in the car, now his back feet are too close to the running board to lift them up and get them in the car. So he actually needed to back away from the car so that he could jump in.

And so the one of the ways that I [00:18:00] find very helpful in solving this kind of obstacle is that we’ve gotta change something about the setup, which kind of takes us back to the spontaneous part from the last episode.

If I recall correctly, I think the way that Mary solved this problem was by making the ground higher. So she used a platform: she got stuff from her house or from her garage and made a platform for the dog, taught the dog to get on the platform and used that as a step to get in the car. Boom. Problem solved. Now with a few more shaping steps, he could jump in the car.

I will often solve this problem with the box by going with a much lower box or teaching the dog to put their four feet on anything else like a mat or dog bed, and then putting that in the box, particularly combined with a lower box.

So if you start with– either you could cut your Chewy box down or if you have an Amazon Prime box that is already lower, use that one. And then your dog can put all four feet in a short box. I’ll often use a box lid. When I would do [00:19:00] this in classes or in seminars, we would use the lid of the box first and then the box. Shorter sides = less likely to get stuck. You can get the four feet in, four feet in with a different context and then raise the sides of the box. So lots of different ways to address that. Teaching your dog to put four feet on any kind of target gives us a component approach where I could teach the skill of “four feet on” and then use that to transfer it to a “four feet in” kind of picture.

I really love thinking about behaviors – particularly complex behaviors – from a component standpoint, where I can teach a lot of different skills, which frequently can be taught out of context in situations that are most convenient for me. There are things I can replicate easily and then put them in context.

So let’s say I don’t want to go out to the car or I don’t have access to the car that I need to train the dog to get into. [00:20:00] Maybe it’s a client dog and I’m board-and-training. I can, in the comfort of an indoor climate-controlled setting, teach the dog to put all four feet on a mat. Then I’ll use a cardboard, because I use cardboard for a lot of things. You may have seen me with my cardboard flyball jumps a few years ago. It’s cheap. And again: the Prime situation. While not amazing from a social responsibility standpoint, it does have some side benefits in addition to relatively instantaneous gratification.

But anyways. You might vary the surface by using a broken-own cardboard box from whatever you have your stuff delivered in. And then you might teach them to get on a low platform, maybe a cot, and then maybe you vary that and then you have them getting on a Klimb platform. Maybe you have them getting on a sofa cushion. Maybe you have them getting on–

You can get on progressively higher things, vary the [00:21:00] surface of the thing, the type of the thing, the look of it. You can do it in your training room, you could do it in your living room, your kitchen.

So now you have one component: getting all four feet on things. That’s a behavior. Maybe you need to add going through the door.

So you might have your dog go through– I’m borrowing from like an agility, training context. So we might start with going through a hula hoop and then you might start with going through any kind of tunnel, so barn hunt here as well. So maybe you stack a couple of sofa cushions so now they’re going through a really short sofa cushion tunnel.

I’m thinking of things that I’ve done in my living room without real equipment. Because you can do a lot to teach these concepts without spending a lot of money on fancy equipment. And then when you do get to the agility facility that you’re taking classes at, now you have a scrunched up tunnel and then the tunnel can get incrementally larger.

You could also cut the back out of your Chewy or Amazon box or whatever and have your dog going [00:22:00] through or over. I’ve bent them in half and used them to make a tent combined with stacked sofa cushions.

This is similar to how I’m currently working with one of my horses on getting on a trailer where we’ve hit some platform stuff in the past. We have some trailer issues and it’s time to address those. And we added getting up onto a bigger platform. We borrowed kind of a bridge situation for a while. I saw a cool presentation– might have been part of this– I can’t remember whose presentation it was, at a conference with horse trailering break down.

And so now I’m in the process of teaching him to go under things and through things. And so same kind of thing here. If you have a dog that’s worried about a car, you could construct a situation where he has to go under something, go through an opening, go through an opening that’s under something, and then go through an opening combine that with getting all four feet on something where he is having to jump up [00:23:00] and go through. Boom. Now you have a lot of different pieces that could go into getting into a car and you could teach a lot of those as as individual components inside, which is my favorite part. Less so with horses. Well, maybe you have an indoor training facility. I don’t have that for either horses or dogs. My indoor training facility for dogs is my house. It is the living room.


This episode is sponsored by On Cue training treats from Karen Pryor Clicker Training. I’m always on the lookout for a shelf-stable treat to keep my training bag in my car over the weekend that occupies that magical slice of the Venn diagram between treats that my dogs will work for and treats that are easy for me to handle and treats that are healthy enough that I don’t feel bad feeding my dogs mass quantities of them. I do train a lot with food, so particularly with a small dog like Rugby, the treats he consumes in training can end up making up a really big proportion of his total daily calories. So I wanna make sure that those treats are made from stuff that I feel good [00:24:00] about. Obviously I have higher nutritional standards for my dogs than I do for myself. So I was really curious to try out the On Cue treats after I read the ingredients and see how they measured on those other two variables too. So my dogs – even the border collie – were definitely fans. So you’ve got a check there. And from my perspective, what I really liked about the handleability of these treats was the weight and the shape of them. They’re flat-ish, not round like a ping-pong ball. But they’re also thick enough and heavy enough so that they have really decent throwability and for the most part, stay where they land without bouncing all over or crumbling into a million pieces. I throw a lot of food, so those are really important factors to me. And yes, I did do my personal litmus test of leaving them in my treat pouch in my car over the weekend, totally on purpose and the results were very boring, which is exactly what I want. You can check them out yourself. Go to, or you can follow the link in the show notes.

[episode resumes]

So getting all four feet onto a low platform, teaching them to [00:25:00] go through a stack of sofa cushions, a stack of sofa cushions with a folded up box on top, and then maybe you put your Klimb platform in the stack of sofa cushions with the cardboard box on top. And now that’s a lot like a pretend car. You could even make the vroom vroom sounds if you want. And then you have a pillow fort to watch TV in and eat snacks after you’re done training, which is also something that I enjoy.

So that’s a couple of examples where a component approach may be a useful way to build behavior, to shape behavior other than the more linear staircase approach, and we can go even more complex than that.

I think we talked about this in the last episode where most of us learned that whatever behavior is happening right now, whatever your goals are, there’s always some step your dog is already doing that is taking them in the right direction. And while that is true, [00:26:00] one of the things that I have realized – it’s called a limiting belief – is that the first step in my shaping plan may actually not look anything like the goal behavior at all. And that’s especially true with complex behaviors that have a lot of possible components to them.

An example that I think of a lot is my heeling progression that I use, that I teach in Zero to CD. I also talk about it in my book, Awesome Obedience. I talk about it in the DVDs as well.

The first four or five steps in the progression of behaviors that I use to teach formal heeling, none of those things look like heeling. A very common question that I will get from folks who are working through that progression early on – folks who maybe don’t know me as well – is they will often ask, “When do we get to training heeling.” And I’ll be like, “You are training heeling. It just doesn’t look [00:27:00] like the end product, but your dog is learning the component skills that are gonna come together.”

And I get so excited about training with components in this way because, because of that, like I just get goosebumps every single time. I’m training my dog to do these behaviors. The first three or four pieces, they don’t look anything like heeling. But then when I combine them together, the heeling just happens and it’s like magic! And I just get so excited.

So I think of it as, it’s not always as easy as I make it sound. Or I hope I don’t make it sound like I think that it’s easy, because it’s not. The heeling progression that I teach now– I mean, I’ve spent over 10 years trialing-and-erroring to the point where I am now.

And part of what I realized is that a lot of times what seemed like an obvious first step in a shaping plan was [00:28:00] not actually as productive as you would think.

So I’m recording this right now immediately after Halloween. My daughter and I went as forest witches and I still have the burns on my fingers from building glowing mushrooms out of LED lights and hot glue for our hats. It turned out very, very cool. But anyways, part of one of the things that we like to do around this time of year (harvest time, Samhain) is to go to one of the local pumpkin farms and they also have a corn maze. And if you have any experience with mazes, you know that most of the time the obvious first path is very likely to be a cul-de-sac. And so you turn down the path and you’re walking and all of a sudden it’s a dead end. In order to get out of the maze, you actually have to turn around and backtrack and take a different path. And you may do that several times.

And first of all, I want to normalize that as [00:29:00] part of the learning process with shaping. That’s not even really “going back.” You are testing out different options. And that’s a completely normal part of the learning process! It doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. “Wrong” would be to continue to stand at the dead end and like throw yourself against it. That doesn’t work with a corn maze metaphor because you can just bust your way through. Like you might get some ticks or something and get dusty, but otherwise it’s not that big deal. But let’s say it was a Harry Potter magic maze and you can’t just bust your way through or not without a lot of damage. So in that case, standing at the end of the cul-de-sac and crying or throwing yourself against the wall– And these are things that I do very well at dead ends, personally. I am very skilled at both the crying and the continuing to throw myself against a brick wall, hoping that a different outcome will occur. And what I have learned to do, the learned part of [00:30:00] this, is to turn around, backtrack, follow my steps back, find a different turn and take that. And that’s real hard to do.

So to tie this back into the dog training example – oh my goodness, I hope that wasn’t too much of a tangent – when I was first teaching my first dog heeling, my plan was mostly just to walk along and reinforce them at my left side, and just walk along and reinforce them, reinforce at my left side, reinforce at my left side. My idea was – and this seems really obvious – that the shaping plan would be one step, two steps, three steps, ten steps, and then finally the– I don’t know how many steps, a hundred steps of heeling that would be required for a full pattern.

And for the most part that resulted in a dog that followed me and moved with me and it resulted in a behavior that I would call pretty good loose leash walking, to be honest. He stayed mostly at my side to the [00:31:00] degree to which I had adequately trained and conditioned in terms of generalization and distraction proofing and all the things.

But from just looking at the stripped-down aspects of the behavior? Yeah, he would move when I moved along at my left side and when I stopped, he would sit, because I rewarded that too. Actually, that’s kind of an early version of component training, which a lot of y’all have already done.

What I didn’t realize was that the longer I did this in this particular way with the mechanics that I was using, the behavior that I was shaping was for him to look around–

So he’s at my left side and I’m on his right. He’s looking to his right and watching me while we walk. I’m rewarding him and my hands are attached to my body in the usual way. And so the behavior that was being reinforced over and over again was shifting [00:32:00] tons of weight to his left front leg while he turned his head to the right and received reinforcement that way. That was the behavior that was trained. And the more I rewarded weight shift to his left front leg, the harder it was to get his weight shifted back. And what I discovered – unfortunately not early enough for this dog to benefit from, but for future dogs – was that teaching a dog to be very, very proficient at dumping weight onto their left front leg and turning their head to the side to follow the handler makes getting precise, flashy heeling harder, not easier. It’s not actually a good first step in the shaping direction. What I ended up with was a dog who would move with me. He would be pretty wide from a competition heeling standpoint, so his body was traveling a few degrees off of parallel (or a lot of degrees off of parallel) and he’s turned his head to the side. And [00:33:00] because of that position, he had a hard time adjusting his pace closely with mine and stopping quickly when I stopped and starting quickly when I started. So there was always a significant enough delay in his response relative to my changing direction or speed that it resulted in inconsistencies in his position.

Now this doesn’t matter for loose leash walking, right? Like that’s a solid loose leash walking behavior. I would be happy and proud and satisfied to take that dog out for walk around the neighborhood. Not a big deal there! But for competition obedience, that lag time when it would take him a half a body-length to respond if I changed direction or speed because he was not physically in a position to make that adjustment because he had all his weight on his front end.

There’s a lot about the mechanics of heeling that are really beyond the scope of this particular episode because I’m already 30 minutes in, but: To do good heeling the way that I wanted it, the [00:34:00] precise, the flashy, the enthusiastic animated heeling that I wanted, he needed the skill of being able to shift his weight to his back legs, and particularly for left-sided heeling, his right hind leg, which is really the opposite leg. If he’s a teeter-totter and his weight is on his left front leg, then his right hind leg is the least weighted leg in his body, and I need it to be really the most weighted leg in his body if anything. I mean, really what I want is even distribution. But I need a lot more weight on that right hind leg because that’s what’s gonna allow him to be perfectly straight so he’s parallel with my direction that I’m traveling. Having his weight on his back legs – carrying more weight to the rear, shifted back – that puts him in that kind of collected position, that “ready” position, so that as he’s moving, he can change his speed and direction as quickly as possible when he perceives a change coming from my cues, which is my movement.

So [00:35:00] that’s like, if you’re in martial arts– I’m not. Well I did take a karate elective in college because I needed it for my PE requirement and I took my kid to krav maga lessons because I want her to be a tough, independent woman. And I didn’t even know the apocalypse was coming at that time, so that was not a terrible choice.

But all of these things tend to teach that “ready position” where your weight is shifted and centered so that you’re ready to move in any direction as quickly as possible. That’s really what we want with a lot of things – heeling for sure – and the more I rewarded that “left front leg, head bent position,” it was worse for his body and not really good for the score either.

Plus it just wasn’t the picture that I wanted. And one of my favorite things about obedience and heeling is that there really is room for just your personal aesthetic. And I like flashy heeling. I just do. I just like it.

And what I discovered that I needed was a couple of different component. And again, there’s a lot to go into here, but early components are–

One of my favorite [00:36:00] things to teach is the pivot on a platform: the behavior where your dog puts his front feet up on a platform and he pivots his hind and around in a circle so his front feet stay in one place and he moves his back end around. For left-sided heeling, I want to specifically teach a counterclockwise pivot. Now, of course, for balance and really optimal results, I always teach both directions at the same time, from the very beginning, so both clockwise and counterclockwise pivoting. And then clockwise pivoting, of course, becomes more relevant for right-sided heeling and counterclockwise is more relevant for left-sided heeling.

And because his front feet are up on a platform, which frequently takes the form of an upside down food bowl, he’s got some weight shift involved there too. So he is learning the skill of taking individual steps with his hind legs because his front feet are kind of pinned in space because the platform that his front feet are on is higher than [00:37:00] the ground, his front feet are higher than his back feet. And so this very good conditions for teaching him to shift his weight back because his weight is shifted back. Physics takes care of it for him there.

And using this, I can teach him to turn away from the front of me. So instead of looking to the right, looking across his body towards me, he can learn to turn away. And that’s really what’s required for straight heeling. Those are components that are required for the collection aspect of it and the balance of being able to take a little bit of a correction to the clockwise direction, to the counterclockwise direction, to the clockwise direction, so that he can kind of toggle his movement back and forth to stay straight. That’s what balance is, right? It’s not staying like totally stationary and stuck. It’s being able to make tiny adjustments so that you stay centered. Okay? I talked about balance other times as well.

That’s one component and that’s how I teach kind of the straightness piece of heeling. It has a weight shift piece to it. [00:38:00] But then I also love to teach that moving weight shift, looking up with a straight neutral neck, using your core muscles, using your glutes, your quads, your thigh muscles, the rear leg muscles for that “moving attention piece” that makes beautiful heeling and makes it so powerful. I teach that separately. So that’s a different component.

So a different component is a backwards walking behavior. A lot of folks teach backwards walking; they teach it in different ways. The way that I teach it, it’s a very close contact kind of backwards walking. So your dog is right in front of you, but slightly to the side so that he’s not stepping on your feet and you’re not stepping on him and you’re walking backwards and the dog is moving towards you. I often teach this as a chin-rest behavior. So your dog would be chin-resting– Depending on his height, he might be chin-resting on like the front of your rib cage if you have like a big dog and you’re not such a big person or higher actually, if you have a great dane and you’re a medium size person. But if you have a german shepherd [00:39:00] sized dog and you’re an average size human female, you might have a dog who’s resting their chin against like your like lower ribs. You might have him resting against like the front of your hip. If you have a shorter dog, like maybe you’ve got a beagle or a border terrier, maybe he’s pushing his muzzle against your lower thigh or the side of your knee. And then it becomes less of a relevant behavior for our papillons and yorkies but they’re always walking around looking up anyways, because that’s just life as a very short dog. I digress.

So this is a behavioral component where I can teach the dog to keep his spine neutral and use a rear weight shift. So by supporting his spine, engaging all of his core muscles, bending his knees and hips so that he’s able to look up at you in a really healthy posture and move, right? Like a lot of dogs have, “I can look up at you or I can move my feet, but I can’t look up at you and move my feet.” [00:40:00] And so teaching them that skill is an important component.

Now I can combine that with several other components, like following a moving target, adjusting the length and elasticity of their stride. I can add all of those things together to create the really fancy, flashy, precise heeling, which is my personal goal. And you might have slightly different personal goals, and you can– It’s like your soup recipe. You can add and subtract elements as desired to reach your personal aesthetic. There’s lots of room. But in order to understand what I needed to do, I had to be willing to abandon my objective in the first place, backtrack, find a different starting point, a different first step really, and build from there.

And I don’t think that that’s intuitive. I think it’s the opposite. It’s counterintuitive, which is the opposite of intuitive. I think that looking for a starting point, a first step [00:41:00] that is both something that is happening or at least is accessible, maybe that’s even a better word, and isn’t obviously in the same direction as the behavior you’re trying to train but gets you there actually in a more efficient way – that’s just not something that is obvious.

The way that I got here in terms of heeling was by doing it poorly a number of times and getting a better understanding of what is actually going on with the goal behavior. And I had to a lot of observing of teams that had heeling that I really admired or different aspects of it. So watching a lot of different performances and saying, “Okay, I really love how responsive this dog is. Okay. I really love how this dog’s movement is so big, and big movement looks enthusiastic to me, and enthusiasm is an important piece of what I want in my [00:42:00] behavior, and I love how straight this dog is, and I love how this dog is looking up without bending his neck.” So I looked at all those pieces, “Okay, how could I design a training session that would teach each of those pieces, and then how might I put them together?” And then I still screwed it up, but.

My favorite thing, my absolute favorite thing, and probably why I’m in training and behavior at all in the first place is because behavior is always dynamic. Nothing is ever ruined. It really isn’t, and I have ruined a lot of behavior and then fixed it, but it does take a willingness to take some risks in order to get there and a certain amount of stubbornness. And I have a lot of stubbornness, so I would be happy to gift you a percentage of my stubbornness and I think both of us maybe would benefit. I know some of you also don’t need any more stubbornness, so we’ll find someone else to take yours as well. We could just have a stubbornness sharing program.

Where was I going with that? [00:43:00] Where I was going with that is that behavior’s always dynamic. Behavior’s always modifiable. I think about that quote all the time. Because it is. It is all behavior.

So you’re thinking about this and you think, “Well, I’ve been stuck at this training step for a while.” It’s because you need to backtrack and think of a different way. Think of some ways you can break out some components of the behavior and don’t despair because it is all modifiable and you haven’t ruined anything. I’m talking to myself now as much as anyone else.

I hope that’s helpful. If you feel like shaping is super hard, maybe examine some of your beliefs around your expectations that shaping should be linear and that it should be spontaneous. Pull some attention to how you’re designing your shaping plan, how you’re designing your training sessions in terms of how you’re setting them up. How might you break your goal behavior into components that may not look like they’re connected to each [00:44:00] other? Backwards walking and the pivot platform behavior do not look like they should be related. But we’re gonna mash them up to make a delicious, like orange vanilla creamsicle of heeling, which is better than either one of those things by themselves. Hmm.

I would also love to hear– I always love to hear about how people have broken complex behaviors into components, because a lot of times until you have extensive experience with a particular skill that you’re trying to teach your dog with those complex skills and you’ve ruled out a lot of not-effective ways to teach them, that’s when the components start to make themselves more obvious.

So I would love to hear from folks in other disciplines, in other areas, other species – dog people, horse people my bird training friends – I would love to hear from you. What are some of the complex behaviors that you work with that you’ve broken into components? Maybe you didn’t use that language, but maybe you will now. And what are the components that you’ve found helpful to break out [00:45:00] and teach separately as part of your shaping plan?

So find the post for this episode on Facebook or Instagram or send me an email, you can always send me an email. Just don’t call me on the phone because I won’t answer, because I don’t talk on the phone. But find the post somewhere on the internet and let me know in text format what components you found helpful. Because I really wanna hear. I find the creativity that our field applies to doing some really cool training just to be absolutely fascinating.

Until next time, thanks for listening. If you like this episode, well, you have good taste and I hope you’ll hit the subscribe button on your podcast app to make sure you don’t miss the next episode. It might be even better than this one. If you are already subscribed, well, thank you. I really appreciate it and there are still some ways that you could reinforce me if you were so inclined. You could always leave me a five star review on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you happen to be listening to this podcast. And you can also check out and [00:46:00] support the sponsors, because they help make the podcast possible. You can find links and information about them and the other things that we’ve talked about in this episode by going to the show notes, which can be found at And while you’re there, you could also pick up a free PDF training template to help you plan your training sessions. There’s also some other articles and previous podcasts and that sort of thing that you could always find if you were interested. So until next time, happy training!