Successive Approximation (Shaping): Why It Is An Effective Dog-Training Model

By June 5, 2017Dog Training

Successive Approximation, also known as Shaping, is a very effective training practice that can teach your dog new tricks or behaviors via positive reinforcement.

The method, introduced and tested by American behavior expert B.F. Skinner, has been used successfully to train pigeons, dolphins – and even humans – and it is highly likely that your dog will enjoy the process of learning new behaviors via Successive Approximation because the training has everything to do with high-value treats!

So what exactly is Successive Approximation or Shaping?

It is the breaking up of a certain action into several smaller parts. Instead of expecting a dog to learn fetching all at once, for example, this method builds up the act of fetching by teaching the animal to do several things that lead up to the final, desired act. And accomplishment of each of these smaller parts is rewarded with a treat.

The concept is a whole lot easier to understand with a real-life example. So let’s assume that you want to teach your puppy how to fetch. Now the puppy may not be very interested in the stick or ball you just threw in front of him. Especially if he/she is not a natural retriever.

The first step would be to encourage the puppy to take an active interest in the object thrown, and once the animal does this small act, he/she gets a treat. Over time and with practice, the puppy begins to associate `showing interest in the stick or the ball’ with a `treat’, and begins to perform the act regularly. Win! Now, onto the next step.

The puppy now has to learn to run after the stick or ball you have thrown. Again, the rules of Successive Approximation come into play, and you reward the act of following the object with a treat immediately afterwards. You also stop offering treats for the first act the pup has already learnt, so now he/she knows that the treat arrives after his two small, successive acts.

In this way, you keep progressing with the small acts and holding back the treat until the very latest act. The animal learns the series and chronology of the acts because he/she wants the treat. By the end of this positive reinforcement technique, the puppy has learnt how to fetch.


The teaching model can be used to enrich and enhance your pet’s life, and yours too, in ways that go beyond just basic training. Together, you can learn to perform fun tricks – dance, bow, shake hands, crawl, sing – the possibilities are limitless. And the more you involve yourself in the evolution of your dog into a happy, healthy, active animal, the deeper you will forge your interpersonal relationship and build a great life together!


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