Fading Prompts in Dog Training
What Are Prompts in Dog Training?
As you progress in training your dog to sit or lie down through luring, at some point you may want to start "fading" the prompts you used to help your dog perform the behavior.
What are prompts in dog training? They are simply little "aids" that are used to help our dogs learn. They can consist of food lures, posture, voice prompts, use of equipment, and physical prompts which take place when the dog's body is manipulated to produce the behavior. As a force-free trainer, I avoid the latter since being physically manipulated is something dogs tend to resent, and also because these are these are quite difficult to fade.
Prompts may occur voluntarily or involuntarily. For instance, you may purposely use food lures as an aid to help your dog lie down, but you may not be aware that you may be adding further prompts into the picture that you're not aware of. For instance, without being conscious about it, you may use many subtle prompts that you're not aware of, but your dog certainly is. Some examples of these prompts may include eye contact, your posture, leaning forward, the way you move your hands or tilt your head in what dog trainer Pat Miller calls "an unintentional prompt."
A good way to recognize these unintentional prompts is by recording your behavior and watching it. If you recognize any unintentional prompts you give along with the verbal cue, make sure you put an effort to fade them.
As a general rule of thumb, once a behavior is being performed smoothly, these little aids can be removed. So in the case of luring a dog to lie down, the luring action, which is a type of "prompt" since it's helping the dog perform the action; should be gradually removed.
For instance, in the case of training your dog to lie down, you may not want to be stuck with always having to bend down and draw an imaginary L! The good news is that luring offers the advantage of allowing you to transform the luring movement into a less significant signal that will get your dog to lie down, or, if you wish teaching your dog English as a second language, you can train him to respond to a verbal cue. Below, you will find some steps on how to do this.
How to Fade Prompts in Dog Training
Training a dog to lie down can be easy to train through luring, but the main disadvantage is that it will take a bit of effort to fade the food lure and the prompting actions. Following are some tips on how to successfully fade prompts.
First, Choose the Final Cue
Back to where we left, you may have progressed to fading the food lure, so now you are left with drawing an imaginary L with no food in sight. At this point, your next goal is to decide what you want to use as a final cue for telling your dog to lie down. Do you want to use a hand signal or a voice command?
Some dog owners get their dog to lie down by simply lowering their hand or pointing towards the floor. Some prefer a voice command. You can virtually pick anything. I have managed training some dogs to lie down just by taking a little step back which is kind of neat if you want to perform one day in musical Freestyle.
A common mistake I notice in my clients is using the word "down" to tell the dog to lie down, but then, they also use the same word to tell the dog to stop jumping or to tell the dog to get off the coach. This can understandably create confusion in the dog. So whatever you choose, pick your cue wisely, use a word you don't commonly use in conversations and make sure the word is exclusively used only for telling your dog to lie down.
Use a Hand Signal
If you want your final cue to be a hand signal, your dog will be happy as dogs are more naturally inclined to reading body language than hearing voice commands. I have seen many examples of this.
For instance, some dog owners may unknowingly simultaneously use two cues at once: they tell their dog to sit and they lower their head. The day they say "sit" though without lowering their head, the dog fails to sit. Why is that? The dog has likely learned to depend more on the body movement of the head than the voice command. Indeed, if the owner lowers the head without saying "sit" the dog reliably sits.
So how do you morph your imaginary "L" into a hand signal? Easy, you just gradually make it less and less pronounced. I like to turn the 'L" into an "I," then I start gradually bending down less and less, until all I am left with is a downward hand signal that tells the dog to lie down. Dogs learn to still respond because they are capable of generalizing and can learn to respond to something that is slightly different from the original. The process isn't much arduous, after several repetitions muscle memory does the rest.
Or Use a Verbal Command
Dogs can learn many words and telling your dog to lie down using words can be a fun way to introduce your dog to learning English as a second language. Once you have chosen the verbal command that you'll want to stick to, you will need to tell your dog that this is the new command. To introduce it, first say the verbal command, followed by the familiar "L" motion. Repeat several times.
Ian Dunbar in the book "The Dog Trainer's Resource" suggests about 20 or so repetitions. Your goal is for your dog to understand that the verbal command is followed by the hand signal. After several reps, your dog will start anticipating you and start performing the behavior even before you start doing the "L" motion. If your dog doesn't do this spontaneously, make sure you are giving him some time.
Say the verbal command and pause a second to see if he attempts to lie down. If he doesn't you can help him by making the hand motion, but try fading it a little bit at a time so your dog starts relying on it less and less. At the same time, make sure you make the verbal command more and more evident by pronouncing it loud and clear.
Note: Not all behaviors require you to introduce the final cue after a while. In some simple behaviors where you are 95 percent sure your dog will perform the wanted behavior when prompted, you can introduce the chosen cue right away.
For instance, if your dog is sitting, and you want to train him to stay, you can introduce the cue "stay" right away from the get-go (followed by the proper hand signal) since your dog is already doing that. Of course, you'll make the task very easy at first so your dog can get an idea of what you are asking him to do. So your first stays should be very brief with you closely nearby and without any distractions.
Once you have faded the food lure and faded the prompt, you still have another step: fading out continuous reinforcement. This means stopping from giving treats every single time your dog performs and moving to giving the treats variably.
Fading Prompts in Dog Training
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2015 Adrienne Farricelli