Lightbulb Moment

Achievement unlocked: flipped the operant conditioning switch in the little guy’s brain!

(Lilo helped.)

Short story shorter, I like shaping and I have been spoiled by having a Really Good shaping dog in Lilo. I tried a little with Titus in his first days home but he found it frustrating – he was all, “I AM SITTING WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT FROM ME?” – and I figured it was too much, too soon. So I hit the pause button and gave him some time to just decompress and be a dog. I’ve let him show me his sitting for functional rewards and we’ve started some doggie Zen, but that’s it.

A few days ago, I pulled the clicker back out. We “shaped” his sit. Scare quotes because of course it wasn’t really shaping; he came to me with that behavior already in place. I wasn’t actually asking, “Can you learn to sit?” I was asking, “Have I taught you mark-and-reward by accident, these last couple of weeks?” The answer was yes.

So on Tuesday night I decided it was time to try shaping again. I wanted a down. The little guy does lay down of his own accord now. But he’s smart enough to know that sitting pays and green not to know that trying other stuff does, too. And I didn’t want to frustrate him, so I lured him down with a treat between his front paws. He’d pretty clearly seen that before; he dropped right down. Hurrah! Click/treat, and repeat a couple of times.

But I don’t love luring. I don’t love having the dog think about the treat instead of what they’re doing. I especially didn’t want to follow his previous experience too far. I wanted that down so that I can start teaching him to relax on and eventually go to a place! But even more, I wanted him to understand his part of the equation; I wanted him to start thinking about how to make good decisions for himself and to start understanding that we’re not just friends now: we’re a team.

So I faded the treat pretty quickly. He’d follow an empty hand down, which was a gold star for him, but when I tried fading the hand signal – maybe too quickly – he reverted to only sitting. With Lilo, even early on, I just waited her out; her frustration tolerance was impressive even at baseline and that free-thinking terrier brain has a knack for finding creative solutions to every problem. Learning to work with a herdy brain has been interesting. In some ways, he’s super easy; in some ways it’s like the first time I rode a warmblood and I was like, OH HEY, ALL THOSE DRESSAGE BOOKS WERE TELLING THE TRUTH AFTER ALL. In other ways, it’s a new language. Which is cool! One of my very favorite things about working with critters is figuring out how to communicate.

And then he glanced over at Lilo, who was lurking meaningfully on the other side of the kitchen, watching the proceedings all, “THERE IS A GOOD DOG OVER HERE.”


A bit earlier. I swear he was laying down chewing a toy two fractions of a second before I took the picture. My life!


I gave Lilo her hand signal for down and tossed her a treat when she dropped.

Then I lured Titus down again. Click/treat. Repeat a couple of times and pause. When he only sat, I dropped Lilo again and tossed a treat to her.

(I should probably note here that 1) Titus was on leash, 2) Lilo has solid distance behaviors, a good leave-it, and can easily be sent out of the room, 3) neither dog has any resource guarding issues worth mentioning, and 4) we’ve been working since Titus came home on waiting politely as a group while treats are doled out. I’m comfortable with this set-up for these dogs in this context, but it’s not necessarily something I’d recommend universally!

We went back and forth a couple of times. And then in one of the pauses, he dropped on his own. Maybe he was thinking or maybe he was just anticipating; it mattered not to me. I marked and rewarded heavily and — clever pup! — he got it right then and there. We did two more reps, then a quick session, and one more short training session for the night (which was probably one too many). Revisited it briefly this morning before work. Then I told myself to leave it alone for a while, but you know what? When we paused on Wednesday night’s walk for a round of all-dogs-sit, that little guy threw a  down at me instead.

(Interestingly, it’s a nice sphinx down instead of his usual frog-legged sprawl. Which is objectively better, but I’m clearly going to have to capture the frogging at some point, too!)

His sit is kind of broken today, but that’s not surprising and we’ll get it back. I’m frankly delighted that he remembered what he’s been learning well enough to try that instead of the longer-term behavior. And I’m curious to see whether he’s more shapeable now (versus whether he just happens to grok model/rival because he’s such an observant little guy); we’ll figure that out soon enough.

First, though, I have to write up his first big hike — so that will be tomorrow’s post.

8 thoughts on “Lightbulb Moment

  1. Watching the operant switch flip on in a new dog’s brain is endlessly fascinating to me! For Nala, I felt like it took about three months for her to have her moment of sudden understanding that things besides sit and down (well, and target) would work. Even then, it was almost another year before she suddenly decided that she understood shaping and thought it was really cool (admittedly, we usually went three to six months between tries). Of course, she also came to me with apparently no training history at a year old! And low frustration tolerance, and the firm belief that prolonged luring was unfair (thank goodness for targeting and splitting). And, of course, she did not have a brilliant, disdainful terrier to imitate so that she could fake it ’til she made it. 🙂 So I’m eager to watch how Titus differs, even though they’re both herding dogs!


  2. We’re currently taking a shaping class from Fenzi. Mr. N also has a terrier brain so it’s interesting to see what he comes up with. We’re working on a hold right now and he’s either holding the sock in his mouth and waving or flinging the sock around. Both of them crack me up.


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