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Shaping: Learning in Baby Steps

A grey Andalusian stallion gallops at liberty across the Cavalia stage, comes to a sliding stop in front of his handler and dances with her in a breathtaking choreographed sequence. A grand prix dressage horse seems to skip effortlessly through one-tempi changes in time to a Rachmaninov piano concerto. An unbroken semi-feral pony from the research lab at the New Bolton Centre willingly stands for an injection without halter or handler. Incredulous observers ponder “How on earth were these feats accomplished?” There is a great deal of learning theory jargon that is unnecessarily obscure – reinforcement contingencies, discriminative stimuli and negative reinforcement, to name a few. But learning theorists nailed it with the term shaping. Just as an artist shapes a colourless lump of clay into an exquisite vessel, complex behaviours are shaped in small increments, progressing ever closer to the eventual target behaviour. Shaping forms the foundation of all…

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