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What is "Fading" in Service Dog Training?

"Fading" is the term many trainers use when they want you to gradually decrease the use of reinforcers or prompts to reduce your dog needing them to perform a behaviour or series of behaviours. 

This is done by breaking down the steps for your dog so the removal of the reinforcer or prompt is not very noticeable. Most dogs need this to be a gradual change to be able understand what you are asking them to do. Most dogs at least 3 or 4 steps in the process.

Removing reinforcers or prompts too quickly (making the fading steps too large) makes learning hard for your dog, can cause your dog to be frustrated about what you are asking, or to even give up trying, especially early in the training process. 

Here are some examples of fading below.

Fading Reinforcers

During the learning phase of any behaviour, we want to use one reinforcer for one behaviour to to keep our dog interested in learning a new behaviour.

After our dog has learned a specific behaviour, we want to reduce the reinforcers so we don't have to give a treat, toy, or massage after each time our dog does that behaviour. 

We can fade them by:

A. Changing to intermittent reinforcement. This is when we choose only the best examples of the behavior and reward only those. Typically we start with the best 8 out of 10 behaviours to mark and reinforce. 

B. Next, we can ask for a series of behaviours. We can gradually increase how many behaviours in a row we ask for before we deliver a reward. For loose leash walking, we can start asking for moving forward two steps with us, then 4, 6, 8, 10 etc, gradually building to more.

C. Then we can gradually replace one reinforcer with an alternative one. We can use other behaviours our dog has learned and enjoys performing for just our praise such as retrieving a leash. We can also use rewards that occur naturally in the environment such as going out a doorway, getting into a car, sniffing, greeting people or dogs etc. Most dogs thinks these things are enjoyable or at the very least, exciting.

Adding duration to any behaviour can also be seen as fading reinforcers since more is asked of the dog for the same amount of reinforcer.

Fading Prompts

Here are examples of different kinds of prompts and how you might fade them.

A. Hand Signal:
If you are using an arm signal to send your dog around a cone, to fade it, you would start with a full wide arm sweep (arm extended and parallel to the ground). Then you will tuck your elbow against your side and sweep forward with just your hand and forearm. To fade it further, you might just flick your wrist. Eventually you might just crook your finger to tell your dog that he need to move around the cone (or other object).

B. Prop such as a paw target: 
When you are using a visible paw target such as a 8 inch ice cream bucket lid, you would gradually cut the size down by an inch or so each training session until it is about 2 inches in diameter.

C. Platform:
When you use a platform to teach a behaviour, it will need to be faded as well. For example, if you are teaching your dog to stand stay, you might start with the dog on the platform, then use a lower platform of the same size and shape to practice the behaviour. Next you might put a mat on the floor, then remove the mat. You dog should be able to perform the stand stay behaviour without the platform.

D. Barrier
If you are starting with the dog in another room from a distraction (say a cat in a crate), you can bring the dog into the room but have a low visual barrier between them. Let's use the example of  an Xpen with a blanket laid over it. Next you might make the blanket narrower by folding it over, then remove it entirely.  The dog can now see the cat in the crate. 

Being able to break down the steps to fade reinforcements and prompts is an important step to helping your dog learn to perform behaviours in public. What other prompts can you think of for training a service dog need to be "faded"?