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Proofing: How to Help Your Dog Really "Get It."

by Robin MacFarlane

The challenge is in making behaviors reliable in the midst of all sorts of distractions and situations.

Generalizing a dog's training, or "proofing the training" as I like to refer to it, is where the real work begins. Most anyone can teach simple behaviors like Sit, Lay Down or Come when called. However, the challenge is in making those behaviors reliable in the midst of all sorts of distractions and situations.

Often times people get frustrated thinking the dog is being disobedient and "not listening" when the fact is the work of generalizing the concepts was never done. In those cases it is not the least bit fair to take it out on the dog by upping some level of correction when the dog simply does not understand.

Let me try to explain this concept of generalizing from the dog's point of view. We will take, for example, the behavior of teaching a dog to lie down.

First we need to teach the dog to make an association between our cue word of "Down" with the behavior of getting his belly all the way to the floor. We have to shape this behavior and reward as soon as the dog's belly touches the floor, and this begins to teach them the associated meaning with the word, "Down."

Next we expand on the concept so the dog comes to understand that the belly stays on the floor for more than a few moments when we say Down. We start adding in some duration so that the behavior is more than just a momentary position. We have to find ways to lengthen the duration by helping the dog remain in position for increasingly longer time frames and reward the staying part of the behavior.

Now we begin to add distractions to the work. We start teaching that that belly on the floor and maintaining the stay are expected even though other things might happen.

  • Even though you walk away.
  • Even though food fell on the floor.
  • Even though someone rang the doorbell.
  • Even though we're at the park or the camp ground.
  • Even though the dogs riding in the back seat of the car.
  • Even though we're waiting at the Vet's office.

The list of "even thoughs" can get pretty long, and that is where many of us get off track with the idea of training and fall into the category of frustration.

We need to learn to gradually but continually up the ante and change the parameters of what Down means until we achieve our final vision of what the behavior should be.

No wonder our dogs get confused!

We forget how many variable situations we may want our dogs to actually follow through in, so we forget to train for all those variables. Instead we teach step one, the association of a word with the momentary change of position, and stop there.

It is critical we understand that dogs don't generalize very well without us teaching them how to do it.

The good news is that the generalization or proofing phase is actually the fun part! You are only limited by your own creativity, so the best thing to do is get out in the world and practice in the midst of real life experiences. Go on some adventures, get out and about while you practice and turn the work into play. It will be more enjoyable for both of you!
-- Robin

Robin MacFarlane is a professional dog trainer and owner of Thatís My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. Her best-selling dog training DVDs, JUST RIGHT and JUST RIGHT 2 have helped thousands of dog owners teach their dogs basic obedience and fix problem behaviors through a system of training that you can easily work into your daily routine.
  • Robin writes for Gun Dog Supply on our E-collars Dog Training blog
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  • Pull-Quote= Proofing a dog's training and reliability is where the real work starts.

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