Waiting to capture a behavior?

Positive reinforcement trainers usually rely on several different methods to train new behaviors. This includes (but is not limited to) shaping, capturing, and luring.

Capturing is often described as waiting for the behavior to happen, then rewarding it when it does. The idea is to teach the animal that the behavior “pays off.” Once the animal figures out which behavior is being rewarded, the trainer can then add a cue to the behavior.

For example, if you wanted to teach your dog to roll over on his back on cue, you could just wait and watch him throughout the day. Every time he rolled over on his back — click and treat. After a handful of clicks over a few days, the dog would probably start offering the behavior more often and you could begin adding a cue for the behavior.

When trainers think about and talk about capturing, they often talk about watching and waiting. That is, waiting for the behavior to happen randomly, so that they can capture it.

I’ve been reading Kay Laurence’s new book, Clicker Revolution. I am really enjoying this book so far and will write a proper review of it when I am finished. Part way through the book, Kay talks a little about capturing. Kay takes a slightly different perspective on capturing than what I usually hear from animal trainers.

In the chapter titled Antecedents and Cues, Kay writes:

“Capturing is often described as reinforcing a behavior that is freely offers without prompts or stimulus from the person. ‘It is spontaneous.’ Nah, not really. All behavior will have antecedents, sometimes we may not be attuned to them, see them or recognize them…. The purpose behind an attempt to capture a behavior is the ability to call upon it with a cue that is under our management.”

The behavior you want to capture already has environmental cues (antecedents). During capturing, the trainers takes a behavior that has naturally occurring environmental cues and adds a new cue, so that she can now ask the animal to do the behavior at certain times.

And also, when discussing house training, Kay Laurence talks more about capturing:

“In this example, we have ‘stepped into’ an existing cycle [of behavior], made slight modification, added a reinforcer and associated additional management cues. This is referred to as capturing a behaviour. But I think that term can imply waiting with thumb-poised clickers for this spontaneous occurrence, when — with good observation and a little planning — we can predictably and easily step into their cycle.”

I often hear people talk about behavior as if it happens randomly or spontaneously. However, as Kay talks about in the first quote, behavior always has a cue. It always has certain conditions or contexts during which it happens. Imagine if behavior was truly random! None of us would be able to survive.

If you can, instead, think of behavior as always having cues associated with it, this will help you not only when using capturing, but when doing any other kind of training.

You will also become much more deliberate about how you capture behaviors and much more successful in the end, if you think about the cues that could already be associated with a behavior.

For example, imagine teaching a dog to bow. Dogs are often likely to bow when stretching when they have just gotten up from a nap or while playing. Or, imagine teaching a horse to lie down. Horses are more likely to lie down in certain types of soil, such as sand or soft dirt. Also, horses often lie down, in preparation to roll, when they are wet after a bath.

It becomes much easier to capture a behavior if we can determine when the behavior is likely to occur. Rather than waiting all day, you can watch closely when these situations are beginning and make sure that you are ready to reinforce the behavior. Or, even better, you can arrange for these situations to happen.

Behaviors always have cues. When we train a behavior using capturing, we are just adding a new cue to the behavior. We are also usually adding a new reinforcer as well. This allows us to take a behavior that is already occurring naturally and be able to call upon it at will.

What behaviors have you trained using capturing?

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  • Eileen Anderson

    This is great! Thanks for your thoughts and for the information from Kay. What behaviors have I trained by capturing? Sit, down, go to mat, eye contact, check in, back up, staying back from door for starters. I so agree with what Kay says. And with a new animal you don’t need to wait around for one thing; there is so much good stuff going on. I did a long-term capture thing with my little dog Zani when I used to crate her when I went to work. I captured a bow when she stretched every day as she exited the crate. It was very cool. She was so surprised the first few days! Then the coolest thing happened. The behavior increased apparently without conscious awareness on her part. I’m getting close to anthropomorphic-land here, but it’s not hard to tell when a she is “offering” behaviors. With the bow, that came later. But in the interim, she was doing it more without offering, if that makes sense. It just seemed to happen, but it happened more often. Big fan of capturing here.

    • Hi Eileen,

      Great examples. Eye contact is definitely one that is really easy (and fun) to train with capturing. Interestingly, I often see people trying to train this by holding food near their eyes…. but it can be really, really hard to then get rid of the food. Much easier to train with capturing.

      Loved your story about training Zani to bow. And I understand what you mean that the behavior happened more frequently, without it looking like she was “offering it.”

      Had something similar happen recently in one of my group classes. I often use luring to teach down, because it’s so easy. However, in one class I have a rescued shih-tzu cross who has a front leg that is slightly turned-in / deformed. We tried luring the behavior, but she just physically can’t follow a lure into a down position. She’s a laid back girl, and often will lie down and curl up during instruction times when the owners aren’t training.

      So, I told the owner to stop training and I went over and talked to her and we ignored the dog. As soon as the dog lay down, click / treat! Of course, she hopped back up and spent several minutes starting at her owner, trying to figure out how to get another click and treat. Eventually, she sighed and lay back down. Click / treat! The owner repeated this for probably about 10 minutes and it was so fun to see the behavior start happening more and more frequently.



      • Lisa Rossman

        Oh, Mary, they’re so lucky to have you!!! Your students and their pooches have no idea…

        • Thanks, Lisa!!

          I’m having fun teaching the training classes and I think my students and their dogs are having fun too!



  • Jenny H

    I tend to keep ‘capturing ‘ for behaviours that I want as defaults.
    So I have captured:
    Sit beside me when we are out and about and i am just standing still.
    If you want something ask for it politely — which means look at me, then at the whatever you want and look back at me. It is a wonderful way to teach your dog how to commincate with you πŸ™‚
    The last of course is ‘hang around doing nothing much’ — when i started capturing this my then dogs looked at me in wild surmise, “The woman’s gone mad! I was just lying down here watching the worl go by and she told me i wad good! AND dropped a chunker (meat-ball) near my mouth and then she just walked away again!”
    Of course my other dogs have grown up with that — but unfortunately it doesn’t stop the occasional bark fest with the neighbours dogs πŸ™

    • Hi Jenny,

      Thanks for commenting!

      I’m glad you did — you make a really great point that capturing can be a wonderful way to teach default behaviors.



    • Meg

      I have done this with my horses. My first “trick” with them was “just stand politely and quietly”, which then used with de-spooking too. Folks don’t often understand that just staying quietly in a spot is a “trick” as much as anything else. Next “trick” was to “come” to me when go outside and call them over. They do this approaching usually by default when go out at feeding times, but am now extending “come” to having them come whenever I call them to my location with a hand gesture too. I have also worked on them knowing their names, so can call one or other specifically. Think horses have harder time understanding their name than a dog (or maybe just my experience).

      One of my horses very clearly tries to communicate and I have encouraged his literally talking to me by little nickers and neighs. Any cat I’m around will start “talking” because I reward the behavior of verbal communicating. Twistur will stand under Oak tree about 30 feet outside my window and nicker towards the house with varying qualities. It is clearly not always just a big “NEIGH” of “I’m starving… get OUT here!”, but can be little question nickers of “Are you in there?” just wanting me to come say hi. Very cool!

      I don’t use a literal clicker, but have just used “good boy” so far. I want to introduce a clicker to get more precision for more training and get more serious about the method.

  • Rider65

    Perfect! I’ve been having a hard time explaining the difference between “catch him doing something good” and “note the desired behavior and the environment in which it occurred and use that to your advantage”. You did a fantastic job of doing that.

  • Meg

    Bingo! I did this exact action teaching Twistur to “smile”. This is a behavior where he lifts his upper lip to show his teeth while usually also lifting his head up in the air. He has taken to sometimes using the behavior as a sort of “mugging” now, as he offers it requesting a treat with sometimes not even raising his head up. I take it as a form of communication. He has also been taught inadvertently by me to stand under our Oak tree outside the kitchen window and nicker to me.

    I’ve have also taught him a behavior of “that’s all” or “I don’t have anything” where I lift up my arms from elbow and do a sort of open handed Queen’s wave with my hands πŸ™‚

    I have now trained the Smile behavior where put my hand up and make a small open / closing gesture with my fingers. He is quite accommodating to do this behavior for nearly any adult, which is a big hit with parents and little kids. “Twistur, Smile” and then gets everyone smiling and laughing with delight. He is an Icelandic and particularly cute when smiling.

    I originally started my training attempt when noticed he had eaten something he didn’t like and was lifting up his lip in the Flehmen response. I’d seen suggestions to tickle the horse lip for just a slight lifting, but my method jumped the learning to more specific behavior quite quickly because he is attuned to clicker rewards and is a smart horse. I was able to catch the behavior because he is picky about what he likes to eat, so does it more often than an average horse. I was even able to encourage the behavior a few times by having him sniff something that would illicit Flehmen.

    Actually was only a handful of times before he was thinking “Now what did I just do?” and testing out doing Flehmen on his own, which got big “Cha-ching” from me and praise.

    This can unfortunately also encourage bad behaviors. My other horse took to nibbling on the screen of kitchen window in impatience when they saw or even heard me inside as I was about to go feed them. I had not even notice at first, then was too late and was becoming an issue. He took to doing this behavior more often by my having rewarded it by sheer timing. Guess akin to folks training a horse to paw at their stall around feeding time. I am sure I could put a cue to “rip the screen on the window”, but instead I’m working on “backup” while I’m inside the kitchen tapping on the glass with “NOOOO!”. LOL!

    • Hi Meg,

      Thanks for the comment! Twistur sounds like a delightful horse.

      Also, I’m glad you mentioned that we can sometimes accidentally capture unwanted behavior. Definitely something that trainers need to keep in mind!


  • Meghan Madden

    I think our ability to see, and so modify, these pre-existing cues is a huge part of what makes us good trainers; being able to see the pre-existing cues does make the “untrained” behavior predictable. Common sense when you spell it out but kinda a revelation. Changing the subject, if you want an animal partner, capturing and shaping behavior will fast change your lives. My dog’s relationship with me is mostly about him figuring out our next fun together thing. He is better at it than me. Just 1 tip, have person in change off switch. Happy Capturing.

  • Ryan

    We noticed that under certain situations our cat would flip over on his back as if playing dead. We started reinforcing it and he does it all the time now. We’re still working on adding the cue πŸ™‚

    • That sounds like a fun behavior to teach your cat!

      You should make a video of him doing his new trick. So many people, unfortunately, still think that cats cannot be trained.



      • Ryan

        I think I do have a video somewhere. I’ll have to find it. He’s surprisingly easy to train, catches on quickly, and our other cat learns by watching him earn reinforcers, so that makes it a fun experience. The trick with cats is catching their attention and keeping it–they’re easily distracted by the smallest sounds!

        • If you do find the video, I’d enjoy seeing it! πŸ™‚

          • Ryan

            Found it. I think this was the first time we tried to formally train ‘play dead’. He loses motivation quickly so we have to throw in his favorite trick ‘stand up’ πŸ™‚


            • Fun!

              I love how when he does the stand up, one paw goes really high up!