Explore & Discover Through Shaping!

By Gemma Fisher

Shaping is an important skill for both you and your agility dog to learn. The idea is that we break down the overall behaviour we want to teach our dog into a series of small steps. So instead of asking a BIG question we ask a series of smaller questions which lead us to our desired outcome.

Let’s say we want to get our dog to put 4 feet into a box. This is a fun body awareness exercise and a great behaviour to teach using shaping.

Rather than lure our dogs into the box with a piece of food on the end of their nose, we sit by the box and mark either verbally or with a clicker and reward the series of steps that lead them to what we want.


For example:

  1. Dog looks at the box
  2. Dog moves towards the box
  3. Dog sniffs at the box
  4. Dog dips their head into the box
  5. Dog puts one paw into the box
  6. Dog puts two paws into the box
  7. Dog puts three paws into the box
  8. Dog puts four paws into the box – success!

Sure, the process of shaping 4 feet into a box might be initially slower than luring them into it. But because they had to figure out each step, kind of like reading a map versus using a sat nav, they’re more likely to remember what earned them reward.

Think about places on an agility course where it would be helpful for a dog to understand what you wanted and to be able to perform independently of where you are. Such as…

  • Not having to run all the way to the end of a contact with them
  • Not needing to guide them into the weave poles and stay close throughout
  • Not needing to run really fast to send them down a long line of jumps

The Rules of Clicker Training

  • Click = Reward
    Always, always, always – even when we’ve clicked something by mistake
  • Really small treats
    You’ll use a lot and we don’t want to end up with an overweight dog!
  • Timing
    Practice away from your dog, have someone bounce a ball in front of you and try and click the exact moment the ball bounces. Not as easy as it sounds!
  • Setting Criteria
    Make sure you’re clear about what it is you want to achieve from a training session before you get your dog – write it down, and perhaps video a couple of sessions to see just what you’re reinforcing
  • Rate of Reinforcement
    To have a willing and enthusiastic training partner, you need to be sure that you’re setting them up to be successful so that they can earn their reinforcement quickly
  • Adding a Cue
    Don’t be in a hurry to name a behaviour you’re teaching – you could be labelling a lack of understanding on your dog’s part, and that will remain with the tag you’ve given it

Shaping teaches our dogs to think independently from the beginning and it’s a helpful skill for them to have when we want to teach the agility obstacles. It’s easier to work through distractions with a dog that has been shaped to do something, because they truly understand what it is you wanted rather than only doing it because there was a food lure.

Here are some ideas for tricks that you could shape:

  • Picking up a toy
  • Get on, under or over: wheelbarrow, picnic table, washing line with blanket, chair
  • Go around the bucket/ cone/ flower pot
  • Through open cardboard box with wellies
  • Climb up log piles in the wood
  • Knock over a pile of tin cans & food bowls/ buckets with plastic pots
  • Put a metal kitchen utensil into a metal saucepan

The only limit to shaping is your imagination! So go and have some fun learning with your dog.

Gemma Fisher is an knowledgeable and inspiring agility instructor, dog trainer and behaviourist. Her experience comes from working with a variety of people and different breeds of dogs, both in person and online. Her goal is to make learning FUN because that’s how you engage best with people AND dogs! Check out her website for more help & advice: or follow her Facebook page:


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