Last week we started talking about Karen Pryor’s ‘Ten Laws of Shaping’, and what those look like in terms of real-world examples. The second guideline identified by Karen Pryor in her book, ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog’, is as follows:

“Train one aspect of any particular behavior at a time; don’t try to shape for two criteria simultaneously.”

What does she mean by that? Does that mean that you can ONLY train one behavior at a time? Not at all. Any goal behavior exhibited by an animal is made up of multiple component behaviors, and each of these smaller behaviors should be shaped independently. To be successful you should only shape one aspect of a behavior so you don’t overwhelm the learner. One of the tools we use at Terra Nova is the Reverse Round Pen (RRP). This is a technique that we use to longe horses using positive reinforcement rather than using a longe line. When starting the process of shaping different gaits on the RRP, one of the first behaviors that should be shaped is liberty leading with the trainer inside the circle and the horse on the outside. Even in that seemingly simple behavior are smaller criteria- staying in the desired proximity to the trainer, walking at the same pace as the trainer, walking with relaxation, keeping focused on the trainer. If I withheld the reinforcement for being too far from the trainer while walking but reinforced for walking at the same pace as the trainer, how would the horse know what I am asking? Once the learner understands, ‘Oh! I am supposed to pay attention to the trainer while they are walking!’, then you can move on to shaping another aspect of the goal behavior. Remember learning how to drive? What if your driving instructor, in the first ten minutes of your very first lesson, told you to put your foot on the gas slowly and slowly depress the brake and keep your hands at 10 and 2 and check your blind spots and…. those are all critical components of driving, but you can not learn all of them at the same time. Each must be learned independently and mastered before you can be considered a driver. It is even more challenging for non-human learners, as they do not have the added benefit of having a concept explained to them. If you find yourself at a sticking point where your horse does not seem to be progressing with a goal behavior, try to break down the behavior into smaller components and work on shaping those individually. By shaping only one criterion at a time, you provide added clarity for your learner.