Shaping behavior

One day a while ago, after chatting with one of her friends as they were loading up the car to go to an Agility Trial, my wife told me, “You know, you’re much nicer since being in Argentine tango.”

I’m sure she meant ‘sociable,’ but maybe not. The Argentine tango dance and our tango community has changed me in lots of ways.

My wife is a professional dog trainer and competitor. After we married and moved to our first home I bought her a Dachshund puppy. She took Henry to the Capitol Dog Training Club classes and fell in love with the activity that some wag dubbed as “training two dumb animals.” She became a volunteer trainer and later an independent teacher. She has won many awards and championships in Conformation (the dog world ‘beauty’ contests), Obedience, and Agility (running an obstacle course against the clock).

Jennifer leads Robbie to race over the seesaw.

I feel much love and great admiration for how her passion for working in partnership with dogs has taken her to so many achievements in teaching and competition, as well as for her contributions to community, taking the dogs to visit the Children’s Hospital, reading programs, and first responders.

That admiration extends to a deep appreciation for how working–and playing–with animals (dog, horses, …) so closely resembles — no, not resembles, is — what we want in a relationship with a dance partner.

I’ve participated in my wife’s world of dogs a teensy bit (plus sharing our home with them and helping to exercise them). I did early obedience training with one of our dogs, we’ve done joint puppy training, and now we’re doing remedial work with our latest, a beautiful bearded collie who is a joy to be around with her exuberance for life; setting aside her penchant for playing “Keep Away.”

My wife has been more generous in sharing her energy in my passion for Argentine tango, but in the end, working with dogs is much less emotionally fraught.


It’s the Agility world that really got me thinking about how akin the lead-follow of an Agility Run is to the Lead-Follow of a dance. The Agility partnership seeks to make a clean run through the obstacles in as short a time as possible. The handler must give fast, clear directional intentions, and they mustn’t be too far ahead of or behind their partner.

Thankfully, we dancers are moving with the music, not racing against it (even if at times it seems that way for some dancers). The Leader must make their intentions for the Follower in a clean, clear, consistent manner, and convey them with good timing for their partner. The Follower responds with purposeful, intentional movement. And so the cycle continues.

Our view of the interplay between dog or dancer seeks to build comfort, clarity, and confidence. We want partners that will enjoy, that will desire to work with us. A fearful or timid animal cannot give their full attention, energy, and joy to the activity.


Insightful trainers know that when two animals interact, always, one shapes the behavior of the other. Could be in either direction; could depend on the activity or the moment. Shaping by successive approximations creates reproducible, consistent behaviors by breaking down a behavior into tiny increments, and reinforcing the animal at each incremental step until achieving the full behavior. 

If I have no clear intention (whether following or leading), then my partner must fill in the gaps. A highly resourceful partner may be able to make something good even with a weak, unsure partner. But if I leap immediately into an advanced behavior or movement I risk creating confusion or worse for my partner.

Argentine tango gives us a structure for shaping a wonderful partnership no matter the level of each partner. With a non-verbal animal–remember, no talking while dancing–we shape behavior with our own behavior. We make simple asks and evaluate the answers we receive. As we each gain confidence in the other, the questions can grow harder (Rule 7), the answers richer.

Whether Animal-Trainer, Student-Teacher, Follower-Leader, Me-You, or two persons on the street, we can accomplish so much more with each other by taking our other person as we find them in the moment, letting our behavior answer and influence their behavior in a kind and caring–even when challenging!–manner.

I love my wife. I love Argentine tango. I love my partners. They have all shaped me into a better, nicer me.

What do you *you* think?