Free shaping allows the dog to offer behaviors, no matter how small, toward a final behavior. The trainer captures them by clicking and treating at the exact moment the behavior occurs. There is no luring and no cuing. It is a silent process with only the clicker and treats doing the talking.
It sometimes helps the human part of the partnership to use a visual marker to measure increments of behavior. Pieces of tape on the ground, a pattern on a floor mat, chalk marks on a wall, a string marking a height, a watch timer in seconds etc.
For this type of shaping, it is really important to define your final objective, and brainstorm the step by step process your dog will likely do to get there.
You can click ANY behavior that is the slightest bit towards the final behavior you want to see. A glance downwards, a head dip both start towards a down. An ear flick in your direction, a neck muscle twitch, a slight head turn, an eye blink, an eye closed, the twitch of a leg muscle prior to actually moving, the dip of a bum, etc. The finer behavior you can click, the more aware your dog will be of both his body and what behavior he is offering and what you are paying for.
Once your dog has some shaping experience, you can select for bigger behaviors as you know that if you wait for them, the dog will offer it if she doesn't get clicked immediately. You can also go for some of the subtle or difficult behaviors.
* Shaping takes a lot of concentration so you should choose a reward that motivates your dog to concentrate on you, but not be overexcited about getting the treat. Soft treats that can be eaten quickly allow him to get back to the shaping game quickly. Crumbly ones slow the process by distracting him.
*Always start shaping a new behavior in a quiet environment with no distractions. Even experienced shaping dogs need to have some quiet space to learn.
*Start new dogs by free shaping behaviors they already know on cue. Sit, down, spin etc. You will find they retain the behavior better and will be quick to offer it as part of a different shaping process at a later date.
*Use wait time to your advantage: Waiting for a repeat of a behavior before clicking usually causes results in an increase in the behavior out of frustration (waiting for a second nose push will result in the second nose push that is harder or longer, asking for two grabs of a stick will prompt the second grab to be longer or harder, waiting for a second paw touch with result in a scratch with the nails or a larger paw swipe, waiting for a second bark may get you a louder bark.)
*The first few times of free shaping, help your dog by making his task easy as possible. Start with a narrow channel to get a straight back up, a small space to get eye contact, create a limited area for you dog to move so the choices are fewer, place an object in his way so he has to move around it to do the desired behavior etc. Be creative!
* Slowly build up the number of clicks you do with your dog between breaks. Start with 10, take a one minute break. Then do another 10, give a break. Do another 10 and quit. Build up number of clicks per training session slowly as your dog develops his attention span and shows that he is enjoying the sessions and is eager to offer more behaviors.
* To speed shaping OF very complicated behaviors, you may want to train similar behaviors that will help your dog to more quickly get the idea of what you want. For example, alternate playing a game of pivot back feet around a phone book with sessions of eye contact helps your dog to more quickly learn that he must move his back legs to swing his bum around to your left and into heel position (called a swing finish). This is called crossing over behaviors, and your dog will blend the two behaviors.
* Watch for signs of frustration at a particular step. These may include scratching, stretching, yawning, sniffing the ground, barking, easily distracted, laying down when it's not appropriate, refusal to offer more behaviors etc.
* Stop a training session while your dog is still eagerly offering behaviors and is having fun. If he gets too frustrated, s/he will stop playing the game, walk away, stop offering behaviors or get too physical with you, demand the treats etc. Use a cue such as “game over” to indicate he is done.
* Have fun with shaping!
Some Behaviors That Lend Themselves to Free Shaping:
Standing in front of you facing you close in
Loose Leash Walking
Come (all the way to you in a sit position and you hold the collar)
Pulling off socks (shape a gentler and gentler approach with teeth)
Shaping a positive reaction to another dog, or child or fearful situation.
Shaping a calm behavior on a mat while stimulating things are going on around you.
Free-shaping can also be using with object-based shaping.
Don’t forget that you can also shape just part of a behavior and then chain it with several others to create a new behavior.
See also our post on Object-based shaping.