One of My Shaping Favorites and a Step by Step for You and Your Dog (Written by MJ)

by MJ





Grab a clicker and small bits of high-value food and follow this recipe for training a pivot for heelwork with no lure. 





Before you Begin

For those new to shaping, the first step is learning a bit about what it means to shape. I like to think of this technique as if you are taking pictures of anything that could turn into the goal behavior. If you stack these pictures and flip through at a super speed, you will see the goal behavior.

Define your goal with clarity. If your goal is to train your dog to retrieve, how should your dog hold the item? How should your dog return to you? Does your dog drop the item at your feet, or sit with hold until you take the item? There are many pieces of a retrieve and shaping breaks it up. Having a clear goal is important. 

While the snapping a picture comparison relies mostly on what we see, shaping with an animal relies heavily on other senses too.

This is a key point less commonly discussed, but learning how to choose your points to click and time things in this way can change your training perspective entirely.

While dog trainers get obsessed with all things animal training, such as attending chicken training workshops to improve mechanics (Yes, I had the pleasure of going to one) and training just about any species of animal in order to get the feel for shaping with a species that does not care about human praise), most pet owners do not have the time nor a reason for diving that deep into the world of training. The problem is, that many pet classes will be limited on what can be taught within the allocated time. You might miss out on truly getting to experience shaping.

If you attend classes with your dog because you enjoy the experience, you are a dog sports hobbyist, or you enjoy finding new ways to interact with your dog, then you probably won’t want to miss out on shaping games.

While shaping is a fun way to train some of the most impressive skills, it requires an understanding of the concept as well as excellent skills from the handler. The success relies not on the animal but on the handler’s abilities. Don’t worry! There is an easier way for you to improve your shaping skills than diving into the science of it.

Like anything, a little bit of practice goes a long way. Follow these key steps and begin shaping a new skill for your dog, to put your own skills to the test.


Pivot Recipe 



Please avoid using luring for the purpose of this exercise because I want you to get the feel of (mostly) free-shaping. There is nothing wrong with luring, it's just not the goal here.

You should not be talking to your dog much during these shaping sessions. You absolutely should not try to add a verbal cue until you have the skill nearly finished. It might feel weird not to command your dog, but just go with this.

I recommend wearing headphones with either music you really like (preferably not lyrical as that can be too distracting), or nothing at all. This does not apply if you are using sounds on purposes such as a paw hitting a target or a jingle of specific moves that can be heard for your click point. The directions below focus on clicking for a touch versus sound. 

Foundation Skill (Train this First)

Before you try this game, please train your dog to step up onto an upside-down and low bucket. Your dog should be able to remain there until released with the verbal “break,” or anything you prefer. This step-up part is not explained here due to the lengthiness of the post already.

Understand Heel Position: Not Your heel, but the obedience position used in dog training.

Reminder: Shaping is (simple explanation) marking/rewarding for successful approximations. Do not expect too much to be offered right away, especially if your dog is new to shaping. Your dog will only begin offering things when he knows it is safe to do so and understands the game.

There is no reason to correct your dog while shaping something new or use non-reward markers.

If your dog does not seem to pivot to you at all, wait until your dog happens to turn his head away one centimeter which leads to his head nearly touching the heel position hand as your building block. Start with one small building block, please!

The exercise:

Pivot into Heel (for use in more advanced heelwork)

One option is for you to focus on your sense of touch, but you can adjust this in a way that it suits you best.


1. With your dog on the upside-down bucket, place yourself on your dog’s side so that your dog is in heel position (on your left, use your version of heel). You have music in your ears, and you are not talking to your dog. You are simply standing and waiting in a relaxed manner but with enough alertness that your dog knows it's a training session.

2. IMPORTANT: Leave your left hand down at your side with the back of your hand facing your dog.

If you have ever played video games, this next part might elicit a similar feel. It's a state of focus and anticipation all while staying on point in the game.

3. You are not directly looking at your dog, and you are only focused on one thing. You are going to click, the moment you feel your dog make contact with the back of your hand.

Time it: Do not click before. Do not click late.

It feels like: Do not wait for anything more than a light touch of your dog’s coat, no heavier than the weight of one leg of an ant on your hand to click. If you get this right, you just gave your dog valuable information.

Then, you wait.

4. It will not be intentional, but it will happen again. You feel a tickle on the back of your hand and immediately click. Make sure every click is followed by a high-value treat that your dog can easily eat within a second or two and move on.

Your dog needs to focus. Chewing treats that are falling all over the floor will not help.

5. You continue to repeat this step until something incredible happens. At some point, that light touch will turn into a more purposeful push towards you from your dog. Raise your criteria NOW.

6. Moving forward, only click when you feel your dog push into your hand. After a few times, begin to move away from your dog so that your dog has to pivot in order to follow you. If your dog gets confused or distracted, lower the criteria back down for a moment. Make it easier.

You might get a bit of a head toss from your dog, but you can clean this up later however you’d like. Just get your dog pivoting into heel with animation and no lure.

Keep your sessions short and revisit them throughout the day if time allows. Over the next few days to a week, your dog’s pivot should look something like the video here. 

 As you can see from the video, we still have a lot of work, but I am very happy with the current pivot and the direction it's going in on this pup.

Now, go give it a try!

Please share your videos and feedback with us. We are here to help you through problem areas either through our training groups, services, or in the next blog post. Have fun with your dog and don't forget to support and encourage other dog owners. Share this shaping game with a friend!

You can do it! 

Happy Training