How Do I Gradually Reduce (aka Fading) The Use of Training Tools?

Once your dog has been trained to do a specific behaviour, any training tool you use needs to be gradually removed from training (faded) or replaced with a different cue for the dog to know that she's working. Fading is the process of removing the training tool from use usually after a cue is added to the finished behaviour. 

Why Not Stop Using Training Tools Cold Turkey?

While some dogs who catch onto concepts quickly (those who are able to generalize well) will quickly adapt to removing a training tool, most dogs need transition time to learn a new cue for the behaviour, then learn that the tool is not actually needed as a cue to do the behaviour. They need structure to gradually remove their reliance on the tool to know what to do and when to do the behaviour.
Fading the tool rather than just removing it will reduce frustration for both the handler and the dog. Fading prevents the extinction phase that occurs when removing training tools cold turkey. 

What Training Tools for Service Dogs Need to be Faded? 

  • lures
  • platforms/pivot
  • barriers
  • targets (nose, paw, stick)
  • mats
  • front clip harnesses
  • head halters
  • prong collars
  • any other tool you have introduced to help you teach your dog a new behaviour

What Process Would You Use for Each? 

First, make sure that your dog understands and can perform the behaviour fully, the behaviour is "on cue" and the dog can perform the behaviour a timely manner in each specific environment, and with some distractions. What that level of distraction is depends on the training tool and what behaviour it is used for. 

Next, break down the criteria to fade for each tool. Looking at single criterion and breaking each one down can help make the fading process fast and easy. Here are some criterion for the examples above.

  • lures- "fake" luring (presence/absence of food), lure changed to hand signal, food or toy delivered after mark from out of sight (treat pouch or table top).
  • targets (nose, paw, stick)-size, texture, distance
  • platforms/pivot-height, size, shape, texture, presence/absence
  • barriers-distance from them, solid or see through, presence/absence
  • mats-size, thickness (height), presence/absence
  • front clip harnesses-other cue
  • head halters-other cue, attached to leash/unattached, presence/absence
  • prong collar-other cue, attached to leash/unattached, inside out, presence/absence

3 Examples of Loose Leash Walking (Loose Heeling) Training Collars 
I want to be clear that these tools do not teach the dog to walk on a loose leash. It is what else the handler does that teaches the dog where and how to walk on a leash. We know this because if the tool is removed, the dog will move out of position, and even pull on the leash. Until the handler takes the time to teach their dog the position where they want her to be, that it is a rewarding place to be, to stay in that position as the handler moves around obstacles in life and to move with any slight pressure from the leash, the dog doesn't really understand the behaviour and is likely only responding to the presence of the tool. Tools that restrain a dog are actually more for the handler than the dog. It gives the handler confidence that they can control the dog until a strong enough relationship is built that the training tool is no longer necessary. 

Flat Walking Harness: Front Clip 
This is what SDTI recommends for all dogs to wear. A vest or bandana with a Service Dog patch is typically worn over top of the harness. The harness does not tighten or chaff and can be put on easily with a clip rather than a buckle. Some examples: Balance Harness or Perfect Fit or similar designs like the cheaper Hamilton Harness. The leash is attached to the front chest clip to redirect the dog back to you when she pulls.

Do training set ups at home. To start fading the front clip, attach a double-ended leash or use two leashes. One clips to the front chest ring and one to the back ring.

With the dog at your side, hold the leashes so that the back ring leash is a little shorter than the front ring leash. That way you can put a little tension on the back clip, then put tension on the front clip. Mark and reward the dog when she responds by moving closer to you. This introduces the tension on the back clip which becomes a new cue for the front clip tension.

Repeat until your dog is reliably responding to the back clip pressure the same way she does for the front chest ring. Now add some movement, keeping the back clip leash a little shorter than the front clip leash. That way if your dog pulls, tension is put on the back clip first and the front clip second. 

Once you can walk about 50 feet with your dog moving with you, gradually increase the distraction level. When she is successful, you can stop using the front clip by unclipping and removing the front clip leash and just holding the leash attached to the back or top of the vest or back clip. 

Head Halter 
Most dogs really dislike the head halter, some designs more than others. In addition, members of the public mistake this tool for a muzzle, which does not give them confidence in the handler's ability to control the dog. So the sooner you can wean your dog off this tool, the better.

Do training set ups at home. Teach your dog that gentle tension on the back clip means the same as gentle tension on the head collar. Attach a double-ended leash or use two leashes: one goes to the head halter ring and one to the back of the vest or flat walking harness. Hold the leash so that the back clip is a little shorter than the head halter leash. That way you can put a little tension on the back clip, then put tension on the front clip. Mark and reward the dog when she responds by moving closer to you. This introduces the tension on the back clip is a new cue for the front clip tension. Repeat until your dog is reliably responding to the back clip pressure the same way she does for the head halter. Gradually increase the distance you walk with her.  Then the distraction level.

When she is successfully responding to the slight leash pressure on the back ring, use only one leash on the back ring and having the dog wear the head halter but not attaching the leash to it. Review loose leash walking like this until you are confident that your dog will keep the leash loose without the leash attached to the head collar in more and more distracting environments. When she is successful with that, take the head collar off and go for a short walk in an easy environment to see if your dog understands the behaviour is the same as when she is wearing the head halter. 

Prong Collar or Pinch Collar
You can follow the same approach as the two other tools above to teach your dog that tension on the back ring of a harness or vest is a new cue for the prong collar.

Do training set ups at home. Teach your dog that gentle tension on the back clip means the same as gentle tension on the prong collar. Attach a double-ended leash or use two leashes: one goes to the back of the vest or harness ring and one to the prong collar. Hold the leash so that the back clip is a little shorter than the prong. That way you can put a little tension on the back clip, then put tension on the prong. Mark and reward the dog when she responds by moving closer to you. This introduces the tension on the vest/back clip is a new cue for the prong tension. Repeat until your dog is reliably responding to the back clip pressure the same way she does for the prong. Gradually increase the distance you walk with her. Then gradually increase the distraction level.

When she is successfully responding to the slight leash pressure on the back ring, use only one leash on the back ring and having the dog wear the prong but not attaching the leash to it. Review loose leash walking like this until you are confident that your dog will keep the leash loose without the leash attached to the prong in more and more distracting environments. When she is successful with that, turn the prong inside out and repeat the process. This gives her the feel of wearing something on her neck. Go for a short walk in an easy environment to see if your dog understands the behaviour is the same as when she is wearing the head halter. Next, take the prong off and use only the leash attached to the back ring.

Having Trouble? 
If you find that you cannot easily fade the training tool, then the fading steps you are using may be too big for your dog. Try breaking the criterion down finer or giving your dog more time at each step, or training each step in different locations to help her generalize. Problem-solving is key! Contact us to book a web cam session if you need help fading tools!