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The mechanism of shaping is easy enough to understand. And once you comprehend the machinery of the procedure, you begin to see it for what it is, and to recognize it at work as, all around you, it molds the behavior of humans and dogs alike.

Let's take a quick look. If a person (or a dog) does something that produces a consequence they find rewarding, they are likely to make that same response again. If they continue to be rewarded for making that type of response then, over time, they are likely to emit variations of that response that gradually grow more sophisticated, more complex and more advanced.

Example: What starts off as an occasional walk around the block may evolve into daily walks. The daily stroll may then become twice daily walks which eventually leads to power-walking and, later, jogging. Jogging may then give way to full blown work-outs which lead to a membership in a fitness club and immersion in athletic activities.

That's what shaping is about. If we do something and it proves rewarding, we are likely to begin doing more of it, doing it more often and engaging in forms of that activity that grow increasingly advanced and increasingly extreme. The essence of shaping then is that you start off making simple responses now and then. Then, over time, you get more and more into what you are doing and you gradually become more and more advanced. In other words, you start at the bottom of a continuum of behavior and, systematically, in a step by step fashion, you advance along the continuum.

There are a few other things you should understand about shaping:

  • Reward is the key that makes shaping work.

  • We only advance along the continuum if, at each step along the way, there are enough rewards (reinforcers) available to cause us to take that next step.

  • If it is rewarding for people (or dogs) to engage in the behaviors of the early stages of the continuum, that increases the chances they will progress still further along.

  • If a person (or a dog) is punished for the first steps they take along a particular behavioral continuum, it becomes much less likely that they will ever advance significantly in that domain.

  • The sooner you punish a response, the smaller is the chance that the response will be repeated.

  • The longer you let it go, the greater is the chance that the person (or dog) will progress still further along the continuum.

  • All complex behavior comes into being as a result of shaping. Athletic, criminal, musical, violent, mathematical, really, any type of behavior you'd care to name, including all types of skill development.

All complex behavior is given life through shaping.

Click here for an explanation of how the official government policy of tolerating belligerent barking, serves to shape dogs into vicious biting behavior.

This page is part of Section Six:
the More Information section of