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THE saying goes: you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Or can you? It turns out we can teach animals, including humans, "new tricks" through shaping.

Shaping is the process of bringing about a new behaviour by identifying small tendencies in the right direction and using reinforcement to nudge these tendencies closer and closer towards the desired behaviour, until you have achieved your goal.

We all experience shaping and being shaped in our everyday lives.

Teaching children to do what we want them to do is usually a shaping process, as is learning a new skill.

If you want to learn more about the principles of shaping I recommend reading "Don't Shoot the Dog" by Karen Pryor, which is where I came across The Training Game; a fun exercise you can do to sharpen your shaping skills.

To play the game you need at least two people (a trainer and a subject) and a whistle. It works well in small groups and can make an interesting and amusing party game.

Whistles the To play the game, first send the subject out of the room.

The remaining participants then choose a target behaviour to be shaped, for example, switching a lamp on, opening a window or jumping up and down on the spot.

The subject is then invited back into the room and instructed to actively move around.

The trainer then reinforces movements in the general direction of the target behaviour by blowing on the whistle. No talking or gesturing allowed while the game in progress, until the target behaviour has been achieved.

at ready...

It can also be helpful to have the subject return to their original position and start afresh after each whistle blow, at least for the first few reinforcements.

This helps keep the game moving and reduces the likelihood of the subject simply standing still wherever the last reinforcement was received.

It's surprising just how quickly you can achieve the behaviour you want.

I recently demonstrated this with a colleague during a training exercise by getting her to write her own name on a flipchart within two minutes of entering the room, using only my whistle to communicate what I wanted.

is is So why not have a go at the training game with your friends and family and see just what you can get them to do using the power of shaping? Dr Ellie Milby is a counselling psychologist


It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks

the Whistles at the ready...

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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Aug 23, 2018
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