A prompt is an antecedent strategy used to increase the likelihood of a behavior so it can be reinforced. It occurs before the behavior. We have to evoke a behavior so we can reinforce it to put it under stimulus control. Prompts can be food lures, voice prompts, equipment prompts and/or physical prompts where the dog is physically manipulated into a position. At the DogSmith we make use of food prompts, voice prompts, equipment prompts but we never physically manipulate a dog into position.

Prompts are appropriate when they can easily elicit simple behaviors without being invasive or aversive and when they can help prevent frustration and maintain training momentum. Prompts are also appropriate when they can be faded easily allowing the target behavior to come under a discriminative stimulus, a cue.

Prompts are inappropriate when they are invasive as they interfere with the conditioning process. Physical prompts can be very difficult to fade out of the antecedent strategy as they may elicit emotional responses that hinder the generalization of the behavior. An example of this is pushing on your dog’s butt to achieve a “sit” The process is not always pleasant for the dog so the association with the training process is not pleasant, this hinders the dogs learning. You also want a dog to sit without the use of prompts so it is best to use only the prompts that are critical from the onset to evoke the behavior.

Capturing behavior is more preferable if we can use that process, capturing is a postcedent protocol; it takes place after the behavior has been presented. When you capture behaviors it is easier to put them under stimulus control as you don’t have the chore of fading out all the prompts you used in the first place such as food in the hand to lure a dog into a sit.

Teaching a Dog to “Sit”

Here is how we teach a “Sit” Behavior as an example. The end behavior we are looking for is a “sit” when we say “sit” or give a clean concise hand signal. We want the “sit” behavior to be under the control of both these cues. We need the dog to “sit” reliably without the use of food or prompts.

Teaching a dog the ‘sit’ behavior can be done by capturing or luring.  Capturing the behavior is preferential so the food lure does not have to be faded from the antecedent package. Whether the ‘sit’ behavior is lured or captured as soon as the dog’s rump hits the floor the behavior is marked and reinforcement is delivered. The dog is reinforced for a one-second “sit”, this is repeated five times. Between each trial the dog is encouraged to move forward by the handler moving backward and calling the dog’s name.

The “sit” behavior is then built into a short duration behavior by reinforcing a 3-second “sit” and then 5-second ‘sits’ in sets of five trials. When the dog will “sit” reliably for 5 seconds, if the behavior has been captured, we then introduce the hand signal and verbal cue ‘sit.’ As the dog begins to “sit” we give the hand signal to sit. If the ‘sit’ behavior has been lured this is when we begin to fade food from the hand motion.

When the dog is reliably sitting for 5 seconds from either a hand signal or the verbal cue ‘sit’ we then switch to an intermittent reinforcement schedule. At this juncture we will decide if we are going to build on the ‘sit’ behavior in terms of a duration behavior or a distance behavior, working on only one dimension at a time until the terminal behavior is achieved. When new dimensions are introduced then the reinforcement will be put back to a more frequent schedule.

So when training a dog only use prompts if you have to. Capturing simple behavior is far more effective. For more instructions on how to train your dog you can download our FREE DogSmith MTR e-book. Click here