Proofing. What is it? Basically, proofing your dog’s learned behavior means to apply the training practices and trained behavior in different situations, environments, and with varying levels of distraction so as to obtain reliable response in real-life situations. So many dog owners forego this step in training and it is one of the biggest mistakes that you could make. While proofing your dog to reliably perform cued behaviors in the face of distraction can be one of the most challenging parts of training, it is absolutely necessary for training.
It is absolutely true that in training, you must start by teaching a dog to respond correctly to a conditioned stimulus (usually a word or hand signal). However, this is just the first step. Understand, that if a dog is taught to respond to “sit” in the living room of your house-then the dog has been taught precisely that. Just because your dog sits reliably on cue in your home, does not mean that he will sit reliably on cue at the dog park when his new buddies are chasing a ball. It does not mean that he will sit reliably on cue in your yard as a squirrel is running by.
This is why proofing is so very important. There are certain behaviors that we teach are dog that are absolutely important and vital to our dog’s safety. Take, for instance, the recall. Are you teaching your dog “come” so that you can use it in the comfort and safety of your home? Or would it be more useful to keep your dog from chasing a passing car? How about “Off” or “Leave it”? Will you only need your dog to respond reliably to these behaviors in a controlled environment? Or are these behaviors being taught to keep your dog safe in a real-life environment? Training is done for a purpose and it is not so that our dogs respond to us during a training session. The training means NOTHING if it cannot be reliably applied in real-life situations.
Now that you understand the importance of proofing in dog training, let’s talk about the logistics of it. Dogs do not generalize their learning in the same way that we do. So, we must help them to understand that a command is to be followed every time. It is important to remember when training and proofing a behavior, that we must first crawl, then walk, then run. You want to set your pup up for success. This keeps the learning fun and exciting and dogs love fun and exciting. Of course, you want to start the training in a low distraction environment and obtain reliability in this setting. When your dog is performing a behavior reliably and consistently, add difficulty. You can do this a variety of ways: You can add distance between the dog and yourself, you can add a little distraction, or you can ask for the dog to perform the behavior longer in order to be rewarded. If you are using a hand signal and a verbal cue, then omit one or the other-does your dog still respond reliably? If not, work on it. Your dog reliably performs when you are facing them and making eye contact-what about if you’re sitting? How about if your back is turned to them? Any variance that you can apply to the learning in small steps will help to proof your dog’s behavior and make it more reliable.
By no means am I saying that once your dog has learned "sit" in a controlled environment reliably, that your next step should be cuing this behavior while your dog is off leash at the dog park. No! That is an end result situation and you should gradually build up to that point. Keeping things moving at a steady, gradual pace will help to reliably proof the behavior. Keep in mind, every dog is different and days are different-some days your dog will welcome a challenge and some days it will seem like your dog has never practiced this before. That’s okay-bad days are universal and learning capabilities vary from dog-to-dog just like from person-to-person. The addition of some distractions may be easier to overcome than the addition of other distractions and/or levels of difficulty. Just remember to keep it fun. Set your dog up to win, not to lose.
Proofing your dog’s behavior in all types of situations is part of socializing your dog. To have a comfortable, confident dog in a multitude of situations means not only providing these experiences for your dog, but also teaching your dog how to respond appropriately to different environments and to be rewarded for appropriate behavior.