Day 78 Freeshaping

Welcome to Day 78 of #100daysofenrichment and thank you for joining us on this journey!

Although our challenges are directed mainly at dogs, we want all species to enjoy and benefit from #100daysofenrichment so, please join in, adjust and adapt to help your pet or companion live a more enriched life.

Don’t forget to review all the information leading up to #100daysofenrichment and more here on playing safe. Know your dog!



At a glance:

  • freeshaping is an approach to teaching that reduces the use of prompts (clues that the teacher gives the learner) and builds complex behaviour, increment by increment
  • it is learner-directed, from the start, with the teacher providing reinforcers to shape behaviour
  • the teacher sets up the learning environment so that it’s easier for the learner to choose desired responses
  • freeshaping can be applied to teaching almost any behaviour, but is most useful and efficient for teaching complex behaviours that the animal doesn’t offer naturally
  • but, freeshaping is most beneficial in helping teachers develop mechanical and teaching skills, while it’s enormously beneficial for learners in learning to learn, building confidence and expanding their repertoire; win-win!
    This is very much the approach we will be taking today – we will be applying freeshaping to practice clear teaching mechanics in our teaching, and to help the learner to learn!
  • cognitive based enrichment
  • get the family involved in this one – children can be great dog trainers with lots of guidance, and lots of these behaviours are child-friendly, and make maintaining the peace with kids and K9s easier. Freeshaping should be hands-off so, with adult support and guidance, this can be a great exercise for children to help with.
    Remember, supervise children in all enrichment activities and interactions with pets.
  • freeshaping sessions can be taxing on the dog, especially for novice dogs, so practice in short sessions of 30 seconds to one minute at a time; have as many sessions as you can!

What do you need?

  • food rewards – you can use your dog’s regular food, a training mix, commercial treats, home prepared treats such as cut up meats, cheese, vegetables or homemade treats such as liver or tuna cake
  • when starting with freeshaping, we begin with simple interaction-with-an-object exercises so choose some items that are novel to your dog, but not scary or unsafe; you could also choose items, that the dog has interacted with before, but present them in a new way
    You will need a selection so choose a few.

Freeshaping is a teaching technique and a type of shaping.
It’s something you have likely applied before, without even knowing about it, and one via which you have learned, again, without knowing it was happening.

Animals are learning and teaching via shaping all the time. Check out this clip of a cheetah mum gradually building the challenge for her cubs, teaching them to hunt. She breaks down the big, complex behaviour into small achievable stages:


Obviously there are hunting scenes in the above clip, so if you’re not into that, please scroll on and just take my word for it!

While you can of course use freeshaping to teach complex behaviours, here, on Day 78, we will be playing freeshaping games to enhance the learning experience for both ends of the leash.

Enrichment Goals:

  • to encourage the pet to engage and lead the learning experience
  • to teach the pet to offer behaviours
  • to teach the pet to interact with item
  • to teach the dog that their human will ask for behaviour and will make sure reinforcement is available – this reduces stress by improving predictability and controlability
  • improve day to day life, for dog and human, through targeting
  • to build that bond between dog and human
  • to have a fun and rewarding experience in social situations, between dogs and humans
  • to learn about learning – this is just another puzzle to your dog…”how do I train the human to make rewards available?!“…it’s all human training, for dogs!

While training exercises certainly fall into the cognitive enrichment category, they can provide so much more.

Providing dogs with cues allows for a complex level of communication between two species; you are merely requesting that the dog perform behaviour (he already knows how to do the behaviour…) and that request comes with a contract. Respond appropriately to this signal and rewards are coming your way. That’s the deal…that’s what being a good teacher is about – keeping your word and making it easy for your dog to train you.

This forges the most healthy of relationships between our two species. This is a level of social enrichment that’s tricky to replicate.

When we talk about enrichment being enriching, this is never more clear than when we start to teach behaviours intentionally. It’s the human’s job to set the dog up for success by making sure the behaviour is doable and that rewards are fast-flowing.

There’s no test at the end of this and you and your pet are not under any pressure. Learn to enjoy the time together, whether you achieve the goal behaviour or not. That’s what’s enriching here…the social and cognitive outlets such exercises provide (for both species).

What goals can you add to this list for your pets?

How can we achieve these goals?

  • although you can use any reward that your dog will work for, using small food rewards that are quick to eat are best for these exercises so we can have lots of fast repetitions
  • take your time and work in many short sessions
  • try for 30 seconds at a time, 5-10 rewards each session, and then take a break
  • have a good understanding of what you will be doing, before you practice with the animal
  • portion out your dog’s daily food and allot some for training exercises


  • make a training mix by adding in something yummier and leaving it all to ‘cook’ together in the fridge; the smells will mingle, harder foods will soften a little, and everything will become more valuable


  • remember to adjust your pet’s diet accordingly to accommodate the extra calories from treats added, where relevant
  • split your food rewards into little bowls with just the right number of rewards in each bowl so that you are ready to go; stick bowls of rewards in places where you may need to teach and reward behaviours so that you have rewards ready to go


If you are feeding wet or fresh foods, cut up small or mash to a paste and present on a wooden spoon or spatula. Alternatively you can freeze in small ice cube trays or a pyramid baking tray so that you can use small portions and individual treats.

What adjustments will you make for your pets?

Applications of freeshaping:

Freeshaping games help the teacher develop skills in the mechanics of teaching. In training, we talk about mechanics including timing, criteria and ROR (rate of reinforcement).

Timing – for the dog to form associations, good timing will be required so that the animal can link their behaviour with the reward.

Criteria – training criteria are the stages of learning. Every behaviour can be broken down into component stages, starting with easiest and increasing in complexity until they are able to offer the completed behaviour.

ROR – the rate of reinforcement measures how often the dog is rewarded. A good ROR means that your timing is good and that you have set training criteria appropriately.

Notice that all the emphasis is on the teacher’s skills, that’s because it’s our job to get this right so that the learner’s experience is clear and void of confusion. This is also a welfare issue. Even though you might be using food rewards or other positive reinforcers in training, if your skills are poor and the animal is stressed or confused, it’s probably not a terribly pleasant experience and may be extra stressful.

Your job is to make it really easy for the animal to offer behaviour that we want to see. That means we need to have a picture, in our heads, of the all the movements required for the animal to carry out the behaviour.

You apply this by offering rewards at the right time. That’s it. You observe your pet closely, and as soon as they offer a movement that’s close to the one you want to build the final behaviour, you reward.
Rewarded behaviour is repeated and then you observe for the next closest, and so on.
Ever play “hot & cold!” as a kid? This is pretty much that game.

Enrichment Options

Getting started with freeshaping games

Today we are going to take it easy so that you develop some skills and so that your learner isn’t overwhelmed, confused or frustrated.

Conditioned Reinforcers: 

It’s most ideal, when working with freeshaping, that you have a conditioned reinforcer established. A conditioned reinforcer is a signal that tells the dog that that behaviour marked is the one that makes the reward happen.

Using a conditioned reinforcer, sometimes referred to as a marker, helps pin point the exact movement that made the treat happen, improving clarity for the learner.

A marker acts as a reward substitute and with careful conditioning will elicit a strong positive anticipatory response (YAY! the treat is coming!).

Markers might include a clicker, a whistle, a word like YES! or good, a thumbs up signal, a pen-light flash or any signal the animal can perceive.
Money, coins and notes, are conditioned reinforcers for humans!

This clips shows the mechanics of teaching a YES! marker:


This process is referred to as ‘charging’ the marker and that means that we are making the signal relevant to the dog. We are establishing that lovely anticipatory response – mark makes the treat happen!

Don’t worry if you can’t charge a marker signal today!

Setting up the learning environment

The important part of setting up the environment, for our games, will be the position of the trainer, the item and the reward.

We use this positioning to enhance and speed learning, reducing frustration or confusion.

Here’s a simple tutorial on reward positioning with Decker:


For our games, the item (we want the dog to interact with) should be between the human and the dog. That way, the dog returning to you for reinforcement, approaches or looks at the item and that’s our first criteria…that first, most simple interaction. This is what gets the ball rolling, so to speak.


Sometimes it’s better for the trainer to sit in a chair. This helps to discourage you moving to prompt the dog too much and also sets up a clear context for the dog, in which we play this game.

Set the learning environment up before you bring your learner in. Practice, without the dog, where you will send them for their food reward and when you will mark behaviour. What must the dog do to earn reinforcement?


We are not going into the depths of freeshaping today, rather just a simple introduction. But no matter, we still don’t want our learner to become confused or frustrated so we plan a little to make sure we are prepared.

To make this easier, our freeshaping games will be learner-led meaning that you are going to reward what ever movements the dog offers. Any interaction with the item, what ever they decide, we will reward.

This is how I get started with freeshaping with novice dogs. It opens up a new world for them, especially where they have been lured a lot or coerced a lot. Suddenly, they have the freedom to try something and lo and behold, it makes a reward happen.

This builds confidence and teaches them their behaviour matters. With each little offering, they are learning and growing.

Your job is to support that by being there, bang on time, to reward each little offering, no matter how small. Freeshaping will greatly hone your observations skills.

Let the learner lead

Set up your item, sit in the chair and let the dog decide what happens next. Mark and reward and and all interactions with the item; this might include looking at it, approaching it, passing it, sniffing it, and movement.

Here’s Decker’s first ever experiences with freeshaping when he was about 7 or 8 months of age:



At that stage, I had him just a couple of months and he was full-on into spooky adolescence plus settling into a new home, in a new country. This was important skill building for him, plus helping his confidence blossom.

Notice that what ever he offers we build on; touch with his nose and I will reward for more and more touches, strong pressure and moving the item, for example.

Try it out!

Choose your items and set up your learning environment. Get your treats ready, plan and practice. Now, bring the dog in and start freeshaping!

Carefully review this freeshaping tutorial with a completely novice dog, Busy:


Now it’s your turn to give it a go!

Some fantastic examples of freeshaping work by our fab trainers at Tayto Park: goat head lowering, goat head turn, goat foot raise, donkey head lift, donkey head tilt.


Things to try when you’re not making progress. First thing to realise, it’s a trainer issue not a dog issue. Filming your practice is a great way for you to examine your mechanics so you can easily see what needs adjustment.

Don’t get frustrated – if your dog isn’t offering behaviour, stop. Take a break, end the session for now. Don’t get stuck in a stand-off.

Examine your set up and your timing – behaviour probably won’t happen if the ROR is too low.

Make it easier – reward for them doing less.

Don’t reward the same movement too often as they might just get stuck there and not be able to more on. Reward for any movement offered in any order.

Shaping isn’t linear so don’t worry if progress doesn’t seem to be going in some sort of order; you will move on two step, back three, on five  and back two.

The more your practice, the better you both get.

Your challenge

Now it’s your turn. Show us what you and your pets, of any species, can do with these challenges!

Post to your social media accounts, using the #100daysofenrichment so that we can find you and join our Facebook group to share your experiences, ideas and fun!
You can comment right here too 🙂

We look forward to hearing from you and your pets – have fun & brain games!