Prompting and Fading: Techniques in Shaping Dog Behavior

By Tyler Kent CPDT-KA

Dog training seemed so mystical when I first got into the industry. Many trainers were able to elicit commands without speaking. Using subtle posture cues and hand motions, they were able to guide a dog towards the appropriate position. Within one session, a dog that had no idea what “sit” meant, was reliably sitting. When I first observed this phenomenon, it was near impossible to pick up on the small details. In my attempts to recreate the skill, I was just an awkward primate ungraciously begging a canine to put its hind quarters on the ground. It was only later that I realized they were using a technique called Prompting and Fading.

“Prompting” is as useful of a tool in life as it is in training. For humans, an outstretched hand prompts us to shake it. A finger pointing prompts us to look in a certain direction. A cold nose on our faces in the morning prompts us to walk the dog. Prompts are a cross-species tool that we can use to tap into communicating with our dogs. Dogs may point with their noses at the water faucet if they’re thirsty, at the leash if they need a walk, or the food container if they’re hungry. We may point at our dog’s bed in an effort to have them lay down or grab the leash to let them know it’s time for a walk. In all of the above scenarios, both humans and dogs were prompted by a “lure” of sorts, and we can use these lures and prompts to effectively teach our dogs new behaviors (see our luring exercise here).

The overall goal of the prompt is to aid us during the acquisition phase of a new behavior. Prompts will be present with the stimulus you choose to evoke the behavior you want. During the training of the sit command, the treat is a lure, your hand signal acts as a prompt, and the word “sit” is the stimulus that will eventually evoke the behavior of sitting. As your dog becomes proficient at the command you are working on, you want to gradually remove the lures and the prompts; this is known as fading.

Imagine this: every time you greeted a stranger they wouldn’t shake your hand. Maybe it’s not their custom, maybe you’ve slipped into an alternate dimension, or maybe you should shower more. Either way, you would learn pretty quickly not to shake hands in this environment. This is the principal fading works on. The less you use the prompt, the less response you will get to the prompt. Eventually, the behavior is evoked primarily by the command, in this case, the word “sit.”

In order for ONLY the word to evoke the command, it is vital that you start fading the prompt early on. With each trial, your goal is to fade out the initial prompt until it is none existent. As an example, in the sitting exercise, we use a hand motion that looks similar to tracing an “L” above your dog’s head. To fade out the hand signal, with each successive practice of the behavior you will gradually phase out the prompt. Start by tracing and incomplete “L” as you say the word sit. Once this is reliably eliciting the behavior, only raise your hand to your chest as you say the word sit. Once this is working well, begin to say sit without even moving your hand. It might be necessary to reuse the prompt as a reminder during the start of a new training session, but you should be able to fade out the signal immediately.

Now go teach your dog how to do something cool. Just remember, be calm, be consistent, and only say it once.

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