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Which Way Do You Want To Shape?
By Alexandra Kurland

written for podcast 16: Head Spinning!

When people are new to clicker training, they often begin with a broad brush approach to the behaviors they are clicking.  They start with a general approximation and then gradually refine their criteria towards the more polished end behavior.  You can think of this like a funnel.  You are accepting a wide range of responses that you gradually pare down to the more refined version of the behavior you are after.  

Think of it like pruning a bush.  You take a little off here, a little off there, until you are satisfied with the end result.


This broad brush approach is a good way to begin, but it may not be the best way to proceed.  Suppose you’ve been using this approach to teach your horse to stand beautifully square for a halter class.  You’ve been working on this for a few weeks.  When you started, your horse stood all higgledy-piggledy every which way, but now he’s standing beautifully.  So you invite a friend over who likes to take pictures.  You give your horse a bath and braid his mane and tail.  He looks gorgeous.  You get all dressed up.  You’re all ready for a great photo shoot, only your friend is running late.  She doesn’t have much time, but not to worry.  When you cue him, your horse always shifts into his new, beautiful pose.

Except today he doesn’t.  Today he’s fussing at the lead.  He’s standing crooked.  He’s swinging his head into your space.  These are all behaviors you haven’t seen in ages.  What happened?

You stressed the system.  You added a lot of distractions which altered the cues he was used to.  The braids, your clothes, even your more up-tight behavior changed the context for him.  And then you topped it off by bringing in a photographer.  When he wasn’t sure what to do, your horse regressed back to earlier forms of the behavior.  It didn’t take him many stair steps back before he was in the wide part of the funnel.  

All those behaviors that you thought you had pruned away have suddenly reappeared.  They were never truly gone.  You simply made other things more likely, but you put those other behaviors into the funnel when you reinforced them, and now they are reappearing.  What was good enough then to earn a click and a treat isn’t what you want to take a picture of today.

If you want a consistent, high-quality performance, there’s another way we can visualize using the funnel.   Instead of starting with the wide end of the funnel, you’ll begin with the narrow end.  You’re going to use a fine-brush approach.  You’ll begin with a small, clean loop, something you can easily and consistently get.

The mantra of loopy training is: when a loop is clean, you get to move on and not only do you get to move on, but you should move on.  


You’ll gradually add to your beginning kernel of a behavior, expanding out in small steps into a much more complex, richly embellished behavior.  Now when your horse is standing square and looking gorgeous, he really owns the behavior.  If you stress the system by adding in distractions, he may regress a little, but he’s still in the wide, solid part of the funnel where the behaviors that are there are behaviors you wanted.  

Instead of pruning a bush trying to get rid of behaviors you don’t want, you have begun with a tiny seedling and encouraged it to expand in a desired direction.  The end result is a resilient behavior.

So which end of the funnel should you start with?  If consistent, high quality performance matters to you, you may want to consider using the fine brush approach.

Does that mean you should never use the broad brush approach.  No, there is a place for many different styles of shaping in your training.  What you want are options so you can choose the best approach for your learner and the future of the behavior you want to teach.

Have fun training no matter which paint brush you choose to start with.

Alexandra Kurland

July 2018


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