Sylvia Borghardt Demonstrates using the Process of Shaping in Dog Trick Training

Sylvia Borghardt began her career working as an Animal Care Associate at an Animal Shelter (SF SPCA) in 2008 after moving from Dusseldorf, Germany to San Francisco. She was responsible for the complex needs of shelter dogs, matching dogs to prospective adopters and overseeing adoption councils. Under the tutelage of the SF SPCA dog trainers, she continued her passion and study of dog behavior and training. In 2009 she began working part-time as a dog walker and as a dog handler for a small dog day care. In addition, Sylvia began assisting in formal training classes, puppy play groups, and private dog training.

In 2012, she graduated with honors from Jean Donaldson’s Academy for Dog Trainers and became a member of the PPG (Pet Professional Guild), and the APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers). Sylvia continues to regularly attend seminars on dog behavior and training.

Since her graduation, she has been working with hundreds of dogs and their guardians, both in private sessions and as an instructor in public training classes.

Sylvia is the instructor for the course ‘It’s Tricky: Learning to Train your Dog with Tricks‘ available through For a very limited time she is offering this course for 25% off when using coupon code SHAPING at checkout.

She’s thrilled to help dog owners teach the tricks offered in that course and to offer some offer addition dog trick training with trickier tricks in ‘It’s Tricky, Too’, which is free upon completion once students submit some video. Below, she goes over the process of shaping, which is the process used in the free trick, where dogs learn to put their toys into a basket.

Learning to Train your Dog with Tricks, dog trick training, shaping techniques

In my course, It’s Tricky! Learning to Train your Dog with Tricks, students get the opportunity to earn 2 bonus tricks when they complete the course and share some video of their hard work with us. One of the two bonus tricks requires more complex behaviors that use shaping, something all animal trainers- especially us dog trainers really love to do!

Why is shaping in dog trick training so great?

Shaping is a fun way to build behaviors because it takes the learner along for the ride. Through shaping, we can teach an animal to reach a goal through approximations of the goal behavior. Shaping is a really nice way to hone our skills, sharpen our eye, improve our timing and get fast with delivering reinforcement. Our dogs become more proactive participants in this way of training, because they learn to offer (new) behaviors without our direction.

Definition of Shaping:

Shaping in Dog Training, Dog Trick Training, Learning to Train your Dog with Tricks

Here’s what has to say:

Shaping is a conditioning method much used in animal training and in teaching nonverbal humans. (…) The trainer starts by identifying the desired final (or “target”) behavior. Next, the trainer chooses a behavior that the animal or person already emits with some probability. The form of this behavior is then gradually changed across successive trials by reinforcing behaviors that approximate the target behavior more and more closely. When the target behavior is finally emitted, it may be strengthened and maintained by the use of a schedule of reinforcement.

And Wikipedia says this:

 The trainer has a certain behavior goal in mind. He will determine which behaviors are approximations of the goal behavior, and lay them out in a training plan (subject to change/ adjust). The trainer then looks at what behavior the learner already performs – this behavior represents an (even ever so small) approximation to the goal behavior – by reinforcing it, the learner will stay motivated to try, and informed about what to do next.

With this technique, trainers can teach dogs (and humans) complex behaviors and ‘behavior chains’ that would otherwise never occur. Not naturally, and not by trying to elicit them by prompting. Have you ever seen a dog hold a paint brush, dip it into the paint, and move the brush over a painting board? During shaping, the dog learns to try out behaviors. He will show behaviors that are a continuum (if you will) of the ones the trainer has been reinforcing, and/ or the dog will accidentally ‘tap’ into behaviors that the trainer is looking for. This way the dogs’ behavior will be shaped towards the final goal.

You can watch the shaping process in action in the following videos from The Academy for Dog Trainers, where students learn what is called a Free-Shaped Retrieve to help them learn and refine the process:

Shaping: Retrieve with Pamela and Buster

Students of the Academy are given the task of building a retrieve to hand with distance as part of their curriculum, and to advance in the program, they must pass this difficult assignment.The point in this exercise is to teach budding trainers the value of shaping behavior through the use of approximations. As they work through the plan, they begin "shopping" for the next piece of criteria- building, often at the very beginning to the dog merely looking at the object to touching it with their nose, to opening their mouths, to partial and then full lifts and ultimately to carrying and placing the object in hand.This assignment teaches trainers to be clear on criteria, to help ensure they learn the value of knowing what they are conveying to the dog. To the average eye, it may look or sound merely like a silly or fun game, but it's much more than that. Shaping is a powerful method, and this process helps students really understand the nitty gritty of it.Thanks so much for joining us for our Building Behavior series!

Posted by The Academy for Dog Trainers on Friday, June 22, 2018

Free-Shaped Retrieve with Lizzy & Tuck

When students of the Academy begin working on the free-shaped retrieve, they often start out convinced that it won't work and that the dog they work with will never pick up the item. This shaping assignment is designed to teach students how to build behaviors by rewarding approximations and raising criteria accordingly. It hones their training skills, sharpens their eye and improves their timing. Here's student Lizzy Flanagan working with Tuck in snippets of each step and then the magic moment at the end that never ceases to amaze students. Free-shaping is not an easy task, but it is one that helps build good trainers with mad skills.

Posted by The Academy for Dog Trainers on Monday, February 18, 2019

And here’s a snippet from the free, bonus dog trick training course students of It’s Tricky “unlock” once they have completed the course and show off their stuff! This snippet shows a bit of Tito’s process as we go through the steps of teaching him to put his toys in a basket.

Check out this little teaser video of some cute dogs learning a new trick or two! 👏🏼🐶🏆

It's Tricky…just a little tease!

Our next course is so, so close to launch! It's Tricky with Sylvia Borghardt Dog Training is going to be So. Much. Fun. and will help even the most novice dog owner learn how to train their dog and have a blast together!We've got some treats to coincide with this tricks course, as well- contests, bonus information and opportunities to learn more complex tricks, so watch this space for more info and FUN!Sign up for our newsletter here to be among the first to Get Tricky!

Posted by on Tuesday, October 2, 2018

You can learn more and sign up for It’s Tricky: Learning to Train your Dog with Tricks. Get the course for 25% off when you use the code SHAPING at checkout. Join us in the course where students (both human & canine) learn dog trick training: Spin, Shake, Bow, Bang, Sit Pretty, how to go from Shake to High Five and from Bang to Roll Over. 🎉

Current students of It’s Tricky, watch your email this week for some fun stuff and updates!