When training dogs, it’s sometimes helpful to prompt them for the behaviour we are looking for. Trainer Eric Brad cautions that “prompts” can be as much a distraction as a help. Knowing how to “fade” them out of the picture can be just as important in good training.
There’s a fundamental “law” of positive reinforcement training – in order to reinforce the behaviour you want, that behaviour has to actually happen so you can reinforce it. The same is true of more traditional methods that use “corrections.” If the behaviour we want doesn’t happen, we’re just nagging the dog with our “not that!” corrections. So getting the dog to do something like we want is the beginning of training a behaviour.
All behaviours start somewhere. Some are just natural to being a dog. Other behaviours like “shake a paw” or touching a target with their nose are extensions of natural abilities. And some behaviours, like getting your dog to back up between your legs, are within the physical abilities of the dog but not something they would ever do, even by accident. So training a dog to do a particular behaviour is actually asking them to do things they are able to do in a particular order of our choosing. But how do we get them to understand what we want and the order we want it to happen?
No matter what training philosophy you use, the important thing is for the dog to learn what we want. We need to get to that moment where we can say “That’s right! That’s what I was looking for.” In Mark and Reward training, we use a marker like a “click” to tell the dog when we see the behaviour we were looking for and then reward them with a treat or a toy for their efforts. But how does the dog discover what behaviour they should be doing in the first place?
It can depend on the behaviour we’re training. If it’s a naturally occurring behaviour like “sit” or “down”, we could just wait until our dog naturally does the behaviour and then mark and reward it. That’s a process called capturing where a natural behaviour is captured and reinforced. But we might be carrying around food treats or a toy for a hour or more and that’s not particularly convenient. If what we are teaching is a more complex behaviour that our dog doesn’t do naturally, we could be waiting even longer. Many trainers, myself included, often use a tried and true method of getting behaviours relatively quickly – prompting.
We’re all familiar with prompts. We use them every day. A prompt is anything we use to help communicate the action we want to happen. If I ask you to “hand me that pencil”, I might point to the pencil on the desk. The pointing gesture is a prompt to get you to reach for a particular pencil. Prompts come in a lot of different forms and some are more easily understood than others. Some prompts need to be learned while others are instinctive and seem to be understood due to some internal wiring.
Let’s take a look at some general categories of prompting:
Instinctive/Causal – Some behaviours are built into our dogs. For example, a dog will instinctively follow motion (having evolved from a predator – the wolf) so a wave of the hand will get a dog to turn their head in the direction of the motion. Following instincts are strong, especially in puppies. And many dogs will stretch into a “bow” after getting up from lying down. Being ready to reinforce the bow is making use of a known behaviour.
Molding – This is probably the most obvious form of prompting. To mold a behaviour, we physically move the dog into the position or action we want. You are probably familiar with pushing down on a dog’s rump to get them to sit. Another example would be picking up a paw to teach “shake hands.” A variation of this is to place obstacles in the dog’s way so they can only move in certain directions.
Luring – Luring engages the dog’s sense of smell. By offering a food lure and moving it in front of the dog, we can lead them through any number of behaviours. A dog’s interest in food is instinctive but they also have to devote some thinking to what they are doing with their body so they don’t trip or bump into things. That awareness is what makes luring work as a prompt.
Targeting – Targeting is a learned skill. It involves teaching the dog to use their nose or paw to touch a specific target such as the end of a stick or a closed fist. Then, by positioning the target, the dog can be prompted to perform a behaviour on their way to touch the target. For example, you could place the target on the other side of an obstacle the dog has to jump over.
What Goes In Must Come Out
The trick with using prompts to teach behaviours is that they can become too obvious to the dog during training. If you place a chair near the wall to help you teach your dog to back up, does your dog end up believing that the chair must be there for them to back up? It’s possible for the prompt to become part of the behaviour itself. And this is where the concept of Fading becomes important.
Fading is the process of making a prompt less and less obvious so that the dog learns to ignore the prompt and focus on the desired behaviour. This can be challenging because the prompt was there to help the dog get the behaviour in the first place. So fading the prompt may result in the dog losing understanding or focus. Think of it like helping a child to learn to ride a bicycle. You want to offer enough help for them to be successful but not so much that you are doing the work for them. Gradually you help less and less until they are riding the bike on their own completely.
Let me give you an example – let’s say I want to teach my dog to turn in a circle. I’ll use a food lure as a prompt. To begin training, I would offer a food treat in my hand in front of my dog’s nose and slowly move it in a large circle so that they follow the hand walking after it in a circle. The first step in “fading” that prompt would be to use an empty hand doing the same motion. I’ve taken away the smell they were following and they are now visually following my hand. The next steps would be to make the motion of my hand smaller and smaller until the large circle became a small circle and the small circle becomes a mere wave of my hand that I will use as a cue for that behaviour.
Fading to Perfection
It’s easy for prompts to become important to behaviours for many dogs if not faded quickly enough. Remember, when I start teaching my dog a behaviour, she doesn’t know what is and isn’t important to being successful. It’s my job as the trainer to show her the important parts and get the unnecessary stuff out of there as soon as I can. So taking some care in choosing how I’m going to prompt a behaviour I wish to train is important. Knowing how I’m going to fade that prompt is just as important; maybe more important.
A poorly chosen prompt that becomes too obvious can be disruptive when you start to fade it. If the dog thinks it’s critical to the behaviour, things may break down and they may become confused or frustrated as you attempt to fade the prompt. Go back to the analogy of Charades. Sometimes a player can get started down the wrong track and it can be difficult to get them back. The good news is that we can always start teaching again with new prompts and be sure to fade more carefully.
If prompts can be intrusive and disruptive to the training process, then no prompts would be ideal. No fading! But we could wait a long time for a dog to figure out how to weave between poles for agility or sit and wait for their leash to be put on. Reality is, we’re going to use prompts. And if that’s the case, we should at least be smart about it. I try to choose prompts I’m familiar with, prompts that I know won’t be too interesting or distracting to my dog, and prompts that I have a reasonable plan for fading out of the behaviour.
Generally, prompting is strongest at the start of a new behaviour and gets less as learning progresses. I see it as a “2 steps forward, 1 step back” kind of process. I will reduce my prompting until I see my dog start to struggle a bit and then add a little prompting back in, but not as much as was there before. I’m always careful to make sure that I give enough help to keep my dog successful most of the time. Too much failure and it’s not fun to play “training” anymore!
We all use prompts. But we don’t always think through how or when we want to fade them. Sometimes we end up leaving some of the prompting in permanently. Ever see someone who has to bend over their dog to get them to sit? That’s left over prompting that never got faded. If the trainer wants that, great. If not, well, maybe he should have thought about prompting and fading before he started training.
Prompting and fading seem like such simple concepts until you start looking at them more closely. Unfortunately our dogs look at them closely every time we train something new. So I think it’s not too much to ask that we pay some attention to how we want to approach using prompts and how we make them less important in our training. Give it a think and we’ll talk more about prompting in the new year.
For now, go and have fun with your dogs!
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